Sun sets under smoky skies as girls play in the sand at the Moonlight Beach in Encinitas

Sun sets under smoky skies as girls play in the sand at the Moonlight Beach in Encinitas (Mike Blake, Reuters)

Robinson said that doctors can be effective at promoting behaviors among families, but that they might need to change their communication style.

"Communication by physicians with parents in a way that incorporates the principles of motivational interviewing, a patient-centered technique that attempts to engage patients in order to find reasons to change behavior that resonate with each individual, may be more effective in promoting behavioral change than admonitions to use sunscreen," she said.

Lori Crane, a professor of community and behavioral health at the Colorado School of Public Health, has found in an earlier study that doctors who do offer more extensive counseling on sun protection end up with patients more likely to stick to that advice.

"The methodology in (the current) article is not really very strong for coming up with this conclusion that sun protection counseling doesn't have an effect," said Crane, who did not participate in the latest research.

Crane pointed out that there's no direct measure of how much counseling each family received, leaving room for the possibility that some families at each office received more or less.

Robinson and her colleagues write in their report in The Journal of Pediatrics that because they didn't directly observe the counseling, there could have been potential errors in how much the staff remembered giving.

However, "since these are stable and well established practices, the pediatricians have a continuing relationship with the families and have counseled prior to the survey," she said.

Dr. Richard Roetzheim, a professor of family medicine at the University of South Florida, who was not involved in the study, said he "wasn't really convinced by this study that counseling doesn't work."

However, he was pleased to see a study like this.

"I think physicians are increasingly being called on to change patients' behaviors," Roetzheim told Reuters Health, and it's important to see what works.

SOURCE: The Journal of Pediatrics, online September 5, 2012.