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Am J Prev Med. 2004 Aug;27(2 Suppl):42-53.

Assessing multiple risk behaviors in primary care. Screening issues and related concepts.

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Department of Community Medicine and Health Care, University of Connecticut School of Medicine, Farmington, Connecticut, USA.


The concept of behavioral risk refers to health behaviors that increase the likelihood of a variety of illness conditions. With increased scientific research, it has become clear that this concept is useful in understanding the linkage between behavior and health. This paper reviews scientific, conceptual, and practical issues related to the identification of health risk behaviors in primary care. It includes both a literature review and an analysis of the feasibility of screening and health risk appraisal from a public health perspective, giving special attention to four behavioral risk factors: cigarette smoking, alcohol misuse, physical inactivity, and unhealthy diet. The review indicates that there are a wide variety of acceptable screening tests that can be used for population screening programs, and a large number of health risk appraisal instruments to employ in medical and work settings where preventive health services are available. Given the variety of available assessment procedures, the choice of a given instrument will depend on the target population, the purpose of the program, the time available for assessment, and a number of other practical considerations, such as cost. Multiple risk factor screening is feasible, but there is no single instrument or procedure that is optimal for all risk factors or populations. Based on the results of this review, the specific test or combination of tests is less important than the use of screening to make both patients and healthcare providers more aware of the critical importance of monitoring behavioral risk factors on a routine basis. We conclude that while further research and development work needs to be done, sufficient progress has been made to warrant a more ambitious effort that would bring behavioral risk factor screening into the mainstream of preventive medicine and public health.

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