Thursday, March 15, 2012

Smoking cessation: what works, and what doesn't

In the cover article of the March 15th issue of AFP, Drs. Michele Larzelere and Dave Williams review evidence-based strategies to promote smoking cessation, including the five A's framework (Ask, Advise, Assess, Assist, and Arrange), stages of behavior change, and motivational interventions. In addition, they provide practical information about first-line medical therapies that improve smoking cessation rates in adults: nicotine replacement, sustained-release bupropion, and varenicline.

Despite the existence of well-established guidelines for clinicians on applying these effective interventions in practice, however, one in five adults in the U.S. continues to smoke. This fact has led researchers to explore other ways to motivate smokers to quit, such as using imaging technology to show them the personal consequences of tobacco use. In a randomized trial recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers tested the "pictures are worth a thousand words" theory by comparing cessation rates between smokers who received standard therapy plus carotid plaque ultrasonographic screening to smokers receiving standard therapy alone. Even though 58 percent of smokers in the intervention group were found to have carotid plaques, there was no statistical difference in cessation rates between the groups after one year, and patients with plaques were not more likely to quit smoking than those with normal ultrasound results.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Patrick O'Malley called for a renewed emphasis on developing communication skills throughout medical training:

We rely too much on technology and testing that are misapplied to problems that really should be addressed with cognitive, emotion handling, and relationship-centered skills. We need a paradigm shift in priorities and incentives to shift from excessive reliance on technologies, a terribly wasteful practice, to training and cultivation of communication- and relationship-based skills that are likely much more effective in the psychosocial domains of care.

The bottom line for family physicians: when it comes to promoting smoking cessation, talking to patients trumps technology.