Text adapted in 2021 from The Fundamentals of Addiction in The Primary Care Addiction Toolkit (online only). A complete list of Toolkit authors, editors and contributors is available here.
Establish the End Point or Goal
Clarify as precisely as possible what a patient wants to achieve.
Do not assume that patients' goals are congruent with yours (e.g., in a case of alcohol use disorder, you may be recommending abstinence, but the patient may be aiming to cut down to four beers per day). When you are able to focus on the patient’s goals, you are respecting their autonomy and are in a better position to support their change effort by providing ongoing follow-up and gentle support for alternative strategies if goals are not attained.
Encourage patients to set their own goals and the rate at which they hope to achieve them. For example, say, "In terms of your drinking, where do you want to be a few weeks from now? How about in a few months from now?"
Consider Change Options
Discuss different ways of achieving the goal, with an emphasis on what has worked in the past (e.g., "When you quit smoking last year, how did you do it?").
Guide the conversation toward initial small, achievable steps that lead toward the goal. This can be done simply by asking the patient to set a small step, or by making gentle suggestions such as, "As a first step, have you considered stopping smoking in your apartment?"
Detail a Plan
Attempt to co-establish a first clear, observable step that is as specific and precise as possible. For example, in summarizing the discussion, you might say, "We've been discussing cutting back on your drinking, and you say you want to start today by cutting down to four beers a day. Is that right?"
It is crucial that patients feel ready to commit to the plan and that they see it as achievable.
Do not assume commitment. Clarify by asking, "Are you really sure that this is something you can do every day?"
Formalize the Commitment
The appropriate level of formality for the plan depends on what each patient perceives to be helpful. While some patients are motivated by an explicit written "contract" that they can take with them, most patients see your notations in the chart as the same thing. Others like to acknowledge their commitment with a handshake.
Ongoing support and problem solving around failures and roadblocks is very helpful to most patients.
Set up appointments in anticipation of such events. Initially, this could be every week or two. Above all, let your follow-up plan be guided by what the patient perceives as appropriate. Ask: "When do you think it would be helpful to see me again?"
Continue this method of carefully moving the patient forward and then reassessing the response in subsequent sessions.
When Patients do not Complete the Plan
An inability to achieve a commitment tends to undermine patients' confidence and decreases their sense of control. You can help prevent patients from feeling this way by viewing the patient's failure to complete the goal as information for both you and the patient.
Generally, such failures are a sign that the process was moving too fast. Either the patient was not ready and so resisted change, or the goal was too large and the patient was set up to fail.
Failure also suggests a need to reassess the patient's readiness, to slow down and to continue the process.
As a general rule, it is better to err on the side of moving too slowly, or making the goals too small. Faced with a small goal (e.g., not smoking indoors), patients tend to overachieve (e.g., putting off going out for a smoke and thereby cutting down the number smoked daily). You can reinforce and build on these successes.
The goal of this process is to gradually acquire new patterns of behaviour, increase awareness of the process of change and develop a greater sense of self-efficacy—the feeling that one is capable of making changes in one's life.
In Fundamentals of Addiction:
- Defining Addiction
- Key Concepts in Addiction
- Implications for Clinical Practice
- Drinking & Driving
- Identifying Concurrent Disorders (Co-occurring Substance Use and Mental Health Problems)
- Treating Addiction
- Treating Concurrent Disorders
- Motivation and change