Shared decision making has value beyond its literal practice

In the New Yorker blog entry, Lisa Rosenbaum wrote about a topic dear to my heart: shared decision making (SDM). It refers to doctors empowering patients to make medical decisions based on their values and preferences when there is more than one reasonable path. Many researchers have found that shared decision making (with the help of decision aids) leads to more informed decisions and may even lower health care costs.

As Lisa points out, this approach doesn’t apply to every decision or appeal to every patient. My parents, who grew up in India, feel they haven’t gotten their money’s worth if their doctor cedes too much to their untrained judgment. Some of my co-residents have grown frustrated with repeated institutional reminders to use SDM, arguing that their patients don’t have the education to weigh choices and make informed decisions, and that it’s hard to make time for it in a short visit. I get these concerns. And like Lisa, I worry that codifying SDM in the Affordable Care Act may entice doctors to simply go through the motions.

But I think SDM has value beyond its literal practice. I see SDM as a language and as an attitude, one that that has been too rare among physicians. And there is its implicit humility, the doctor’s admission that in areas of clinical uncertainty, her patient’s values and preferences deserve attention.

I’ve tried to take this to heart when talking to my patients. Along with the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation, I’m about to launch a pilot of shared decision making at my primary care clinic. Our medical assistants and physicians will walk our patients through web-based decision aids that grapple, to start, with two medical decisions that have no right answers: prostate cancer screening and the treatment of knee osteoarthritis (the long-term effects of wear and tear on the joint). I don’t expect every patient to come away with one hundred percent certainty about her decision, or for every provider to find the aid useful or even usable in the short time allotted for a visit.

If, at the end of the conversation, a patient prefers me to be the quarterback, I’ll gladly play that role. But I want to have given her the chance to speak up.

Ishani Ganguli is a journalist and an internal medicine-primary care resident who blogs at The Boston Globe’s Short White Coat, where this article originally appeared. 

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  • SarahJ89

    I’ve never had a doctor point out side effects or contraindications in any discussion of prescribed drugs. Surgery was scheduled in five minutes, with no discussion or even a glance at the x-rays. I was never informed about the fact a CT scan exposes one to much more radiation. When I was asked to sign an informed consent form for surgery, there was a list of all the questions I’d wanted to ask but not allowed time for! When I went down the list and wrote “No” next to each unasked/unanswered question the nurse snatched the form from me.

    Informed decision making simply has not existed in any interaction I’ve ever had with the medical profession. I wish it did, but am not optimistic. I’ve worked in a technical field in which I had to explain specialized concepts to people with a wide variety of educational backgrounds who are nervous. There are ways of doing that but if you think you’re way smarter than the person you’re talking to you’re probably not going to seek them out.

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