Researchers at the University of Michigan report that doctors rarely give their patients all the information they require to make informed medical decisions. Sometimes, when making a decision over a difficult diagnosis, the questions patients should be allowed to ask (and expect to receive complete information) are as simple as “what are my options?” However, the researchers at the Institute for Social Research found that patients hear far more from doctors about the pros than cons of medications, tests and surgeries.
The researchers asked subjects about decisions they made with their health care providers over the past two years regarding some common medical issues such as screening tests for colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer; taking prescription drugs for problems such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and depression; and also the daunting decision to have surgery for knee or hip replacement, cataracts, or lower back pain.
The study came back with some chilling results. First, the study found that 75% of the people interviewed did have to make such decisions within the past two years, making the importance of distributing information from health care professional to patient all that more important. However, doctors and nurses were far more likely to discuss only the advantages to certain treatments or procedures, while skipping the negatives.
For example, only 20 percent of the patients who discussed breast cancer screening said they heard anything about possible downsides, such as false positive results, while 50 percent said they heard “a lot” about the pros of screening. Few patients who had discussed cholesterol-lowering drugs knew the most common side effects (headache, nausea, digestive tract problems) or how much a reduction in risk of heart attack can be achieved by taking them (roughly 33 to 50 percent, various studies have shown.)
Dr. Michael Barry, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said that “The study clearly demonstrates that people routinely make poorly informed medical decisions.”
President Obama’s push for health care reform has a little-known program that would actually seek to improve patient’s access to vital information. While still not fully funded by Congress, the program would develop, test and spread educational tools to help patients and their families fully understand treatment options. It also directs government researchers to test shared decision-making models to see if they improve quality of care and reduce costs.