Doctors and Patients - Working Together to Make Medical Decisions

Several articles in the recent literature have suggested interesting patterns in health care decisions among groups of patients. One article describes how race and marital status were linked to the decisions a group of men diagnosed with localized prostate cancer made regarding the type of therapy to pursue - black and single men tended to choose radiation therapy, while white and married men tended to choose surgery. Another study shows that among women with locally advanced breast cancer, emotional, religious, and marital factors delayed their pursuit of treatment after diagnosis. It seems that many factors can influence patients' decisions about cancer treatment, not simply the advice of their physicians.

"We've generally assumed people will always make rational decisions when it comes to their health," explains Dr. Wendy Nelson of NCI's Basic and Biobehavioral Research Branch, "but as human beings, our decisions are often guided by intuition and emotion, rather than fact and reason."

"Patients aren't computers, nor do they have the resources and time to always make these very difficult decisions," explains Dr. Nelson. "Often people rely on heuristics - rules of thumb that serve as automatic, intuitive guides to decision making - instead. But whenever you're dealing with medical uncertainty, there's no right or wrong answer. Through this initiative, we're trying to understand how people make decisions so health care providers can help patients make a truly informed decision that is consistent with their own values and preferences."

Dr. Nelson leads a scientific initiative at NCI that promotes research on the cognitive and affective processes underlying decision making in cancer control - for example, reasons why some people delay treatment that they know is in their best interest. Much of the research that was discussed at the initiative's first meeting, held in February of 2004, is published in a supplement to this month's issue of Health Psychology. Additionally, two program announcements, "Decision Making in Health: Behavior Maintenance" and "Decision Making in Cancer: Single-Event Decisions" were released by NCI at the end of last year to encourage more research in this area.

When a patient is facing a serious medical issue, the choices are never easy. In these situations, older adults tend to defer to their doctors for advice, a relationship known as the paternalistic decision-making model, while younger people tend to take a more active role in the decision. But regardless of the process, it's clear that the way in which information is presented to the patient makes a difference.

For example, if a surgeon says to a patient, "You will have a 90 percent chance of survival with this procedure," instead of saying, "There is a 10 percent chance of mortality," that can make a difference.

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