Good decision making often depends on good communication

We live in an age of patient empowerment.  Medical students are now routinely taught that the “right choice” often depends on patient preferences—on how an individual patient weighs the pros and cons of her treatment alternatives.  That means medical decisions depend, more than ever, on good communication. Physicians need to help patients understand their choices so that they can partner with their patients in discovering the best alternatives, ones personalized to fit each patient’s individual preferences.

But helping patients understand their treatment choices is often no simple matter.

In my book Critical Decisions, I provide a word by word account of an earnestly communicative hematologist describing the risks and benefits of treating leukemia to his patient.  The hematologist tries to explain that there is a good chance the patient’s tumor will respond to chemotherapy.

“So if you look at complete cytogenetic response rates in the chronic phase,” the hematologist explains, “it’s about 80%, and if you look at the accelerated phase, it’s about 15%.  So, the drug doesn’t work in advanced disease very well. If you look at patients who get a complete cytogenetic response as their best response in the Iris trial, their risk of ever progressing in the next 4 years, so about 48 months roughly, is about 8% overall.”

“That’s good,” the patient replied.

“Yeah.  So, and this is divided into people who become Philadelphia chromosome positive but appear to be in chronic phase.  And half of these are people who go to accelerated phase or blast crisis.  If you look at people who had complete cytogenetic response, this is people who had complete cytogenetic remission at any time of the trial, … if you look at people who are at complete cytogenetic remission at 6 months like you are, this is probably less than 5%, so.”

“Over 4 years?”

“Yeah,” the doctor replied. “Now if you look at the curves, truth be known, there’s a steady decline.  It’s about a risk of losing progression overall in the study of somewhere between 2-4% per year.”

The patient is understandably confused.  In less than two minutes time, she has been deluged with numbers: 80%, 15%, 48 months, 4 years … whose head wouldn’t be spinning?

Later in this conversation, during an appointment that lasted more than an hour, the patient would learn that if she goes into complete remission (one of those numbers from above, I think), she would still face a 5% risk of cancer progression over the next 4 years, and a 4% risk (time-frame unspecified by the physician) of expressing new chromosomal changes.  If she has a recurrence, she can get a bone marrow transplant (which led to a 5 or 10 minute conversation laying out the odds of surviving such a treatment, plus the odds of experiencing graft versus host disease: “there’s about a 40-50% chance you’d need some therapy for that.  And then if you are an unrelated donor and a match, it goes up to about 70% …”), with the subsequent risk of chronic relapse of 5 to 8% depending on …well, does it really matter anymore?

We physicians are a highly numerate group of people.  To us, numbers are second nature.  In many doctor/patient encounters, in fact, physicians unwittingly flip back and forth between percentages (“3%”) and frequencies (“8 out of 100”).  After all, isn’t 3% the same thing as 3 out of 100?  But for many patients, this back and forth is incredibly confusing. Look what this back and forth did to Yogi Berra, who, when asked by reporters to explain the intricacies of baseball explained that: “90% of the game is half mental.”

Good decision making often depends on good communication.  The patient empowerment revolution succeeded in convincing most of us physicians that patients deserve an important role in making medical decisions.  Now we have to find better ways of helping doctors and patients talk with each other, in a language each party can understand.

Peter Ubel is a physician and behavioral scientist who blogs at his self-titled site, Peter Ubel and can be reached on Twitter @PeterUbel.  He is the author of Critical Decisions: How You and Your Doctor Can Make the Right Medical Choices Together.

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