Blog | Monday, February 25, 2013

Help me, I'm deciding

I went to a meeting of a panel this past week under the auspices of the Institute of Medicine. Called the Evidence Communication Innovation Collaborative [yes, I know], the group discusses a number of topics around the general ambit of communicating medical evidence to patients. We spent a lot of time, productively, on the topic of decision aids. A lot of people at the meeting really like them. (Here's a collection of decision aids, which includes a short primer on what they are; the Wikipedia article is informative.)

I like them, too, and it's not hard to understand why. Decision aids are the fuel of shared decision making. Information should not be concentrated in the hands of the doctor; rather, it should be presented to the decider, which we presume is the patient, the ordinary person, in a way relevant to them.

But they are not the panacea.

We forward-thinking doctors know in our heart of hearts that decision-making should be shared with the patient; unfortunately, not all patients think that way. Some still rely on the physician to make their decisions.

Even the alternatives, and the risks and benefits attached to each one, are not so obvious without some thought. And that thought is not the view from nowhere, as a philosopher put it, but dependent on the point of view of the person thinking. The risks, benefits, and preferred alternatives depend on the kind of person doing the choosing. And who's to say that a patient from one race, say, or economic stratum, will react to alternatives the same way as another?

Count me encouraged but skeptical. There were a lot of people in that room ready to share decision making. But a decision aid is only as good as the decisions it includes. We need to know a lot more about how people make decisions, and how they talk to their doctors, before we can expect such aids to do more than reproduce our current health care system's inequalities and insensitivities.

Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews. He is also a poet, journalist and translator in Yiddish and English. This post originally appeared at his blog.