A medical assistant-based program to promote healthy behaviors in primary care

Robert L. Ferrer, Priti Mody-Bailey, Carlos Roberto Jaén, Sherrie Gott, Sara Araujo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


PURPOSE: Most primary care patients have at least 1 major behavioral risk: smoking, risky drinking, low physical activity, or unhealthy diet. We studied the effectiveness of a medical assistant-based program to identify and refer patients with risk behaviors to appropriate interventions. METHODS: We undertook a randomized control trial in a practice-based research network. The trial included 864 adult patients from 6 primary care practices. Medical assistants screened patients for 4 risk behaviors and applied behavior-specific algorithms to link patients with interventions. Primary outcomes were improved risk behaviors on standardized assessments. Secondary outcomes included participation in a behavioral intervention and the program's effect on the medical assistants' workflow and job satisfaction. RESULTS: Follow-up data were available for 55% of participants at a mean of 12 months. The medical assistant referral arm referred a greater proportion of patients than did usual care (67.4 vs 21.8%; P <.001) but did not achieve a higher success rate for improved behavioral outcomes (21.7 vs 16.9%; P = 0.19). Qualitative interviews found both individual medical assistant and organizational effects on program adoption. CONCLUSION: Engaging more primary care team members to address risk behaviors improved referral rates. More extensive medical assistant training, changes in practice culture, and sustained behavioral interventions will be necessary to improve risk behavior outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)504-512
Number of pages9
JournalAnnals of family medicine
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2009


  • Allied health occupations
  • Behavioral risk factors
  • Health behavior
  • Health promotion
  • Medical assistants
  • Practice redesign
  • Primary health care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Family Practice


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