Before recommending treatment, doctors weigh the potential risk of harm from a treatment against its potential benefit. (See also Overview of Medical Decision Making.)
In earlier days of medical care, doctors often made decisions for their patients without their input and without explaining the risks and benefits of all available treatments. This approach has been recognized as inappropriate.
Because the goal of medical treatment is to improve outcomes, as defined by a person’s own goals and values (see Defining Goals), doctors now share medical decision making with people. Information is exchanged in two ways:
The doctor and patient discuss treatment options and agree on the best treatment plan. Shared decision making does not mean that doctors leave people completely on their own to decide among various, sometimes confusing treatment options. Doctors still make recommendations based on standards of care and the best medical evidence, but they present the reasons behind those recommendations and how they think those recommendations meet the individual's needs and goals. In shared decision making, doctors help guide people through the decision process, neither dictating to them nor abandoning them.
Sometimes, people are unable to make decisions on their own behalf because they have illnesses, such as dementia, that affect their ability to understand information. Sometimes, they have severe illnesses such as delirium or coma that affect their level of consciousness. In such cases, a doctor will ask the person’s next-of-kin or other holder of a health care power of attorney to help make treatment decisions.
Doctors use their education, experience, and the results of clinical trials to provide information regarding the risks and benefits of available treatments.
Risk is the likelihood that a harmful outcome will occur, such as worsening of the disease or developing a side effect from the treatment. How risks are described can make a big difference. For example, suppose that there was a clinical trial that compared a new drug to prevent stroke against an established drug. Now suppose the results of the trial showed that the new drug caused the side effect of bleeding in 2% of people but the established drug caused bleeding in 1% of people.
In this example, the relative risk being twice as high makes the new drug sound extremely dangerous, whereas the absolute risk increase of 1 percentage point makes the danger sound minimal. And people who are for or against something typically quote only the risk description that best fits their opinion. Doctors can help people understand risk estimates and make a reasoned decision.
The benefit of treatment could be any of the following:
After weighing the risks and benefits of treatment and taking into account a person’s goals and preferences, the doctor might make a recommendation for a specific treatment plan. However, this process can sometimes be complicated, because
Because medical information can be complex, perhaps the doctor’s most useful role is to provide perspective on the potential risks and benefits. For example, advertisements for various drugs on television and in magazines are accompanied by a long list of potential side effects that range from mild to disastrous, but these advertisements do not provide information on any of the following topics:
As a result, a person who might benefit greatly from a treatment might refuse the drug for fear of experiencing any number of these advertised side effects.
For example, many people who have high blood pressure stop treatment because they have side effects from the drug they were given. Doctors can explain to people that even though they feel fine now, treating high blood pressure is important because it significantly reduces their chance of heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure, which are leading causes of death and disability in the United States. If people understand that side effects might be avoided or minimized by using a different drug or a different dose, they might be more willing to assume the risks of treatment. By contrast, the effects of a heart attack or stroke are often serious, irreversible, and life-threatening, meaning that the potential benefit of taking a blood pressure drug greatly outweighs the potential risks for most people.
Doctors can also provide perspective by comparing the person's circumstances with the circumstances of the people in whom a drug or treatment was originally studied in a clinical trial. For example, a person who is sicker than the people in whom the drug was originally studied might benefit less from the drug and perhaps experience more risk. On the other hand, a person who is healthier than the people in whom the drug was originally studied might have better outcomes than those of the study group.