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Decision Science Group: It Matters How Clinical Risk is Communicated

In a study led by Dr. Joshua Rosen and mentored by Dr. Joshua Liao, a team from the Decision Science Group surveyed Americans adults to understand whether their perceptions of surgical treatment risks varied based on how risk information was communicated.

American College of Surgeons

“The way surgeons communicate with patients really matters,” Dr. Rosen said. “We need to communicate accurately so that patients can interpret that information within the context of their lives.”

The team found that using qualitative descriptions of risks led to a wider range of interpretations than quantitative values and ranges. In particular:

  • When describing treatment risks to patients, there was less variance in interpretation among those shown risks in the form of quantitative values (e.g., "1 percent") or ranges (e.g,. "1-5 percent") , versus qualitative terms (e.g.,g “uncommon”).

  • Variance in interpretation was generally lower when risks were communicated as quantitative values rather than as ranges.

  • Understanding the potential complications of various alternative treatments is important for surgeons to help patients make informed decisions.

See Dr. Rosen share more about the work:

This project is not occurring in a vacuum. Instead, it aligns to a larger body of work related to clinical decision making and patient outcomes, housed in the Decision Science Group. The group is an innovative collaboration between multiple entities at UW, including the Department of Medicine, Department of Surgery, and Foster School of Business.

"This study is part of a broader portfolio of work to improve health by improving how clinicians and patients make health care decisions," Dr. Liao said.

In this case, findings from this study are being used to design decision-making tools and protocols that can be implemented to help patients make decisions about appendicitis treatment, he said.

The study was presented this week at the American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress 2021. Read more about this work via the American College of Surgeons and UW Medicine Newsroom.

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