Patients Often Misinterpret Risk Data

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More information is not always better when it comes to helping patients understand procedure risks and benefits, according to Peter H. Schwartz, a faculty investigator at the Indiana University Center for Bioethics. In an article in the March/April 2011 Hastings Center Report, Schwartz posits that disclosure of quantitative risk-related data can backfire as even individuals with a good grasp of probability and math—less than 50% of the adult population, according to Schwartz—are prone to biases in how they interpret data on risks. Citing 30 years of psychology literature, Schwartz notes that patients might give exaggerated importance to small risks or, conversely, exhibit what he refers to as “optimism bias” and exaggerate the chance that they will be in the “lucky” group. “Which of these biases comes into play in a given situation...depends on the individual’s psychology and the way the information is presented,” he writes in the article. This bias can lead patients to make decisions about their healthcare that is not based on reason or fact.
An accompanying commentary by Peter Ubel, professor of marketing and public policy at Duke University, supports Schwartz’ analysis and calls for more research on how best to present information about procedure risks to patients. Ubel notes that, in his own research, pictographs proved better at conveying risks than narrative or other kinds of graphic information.


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