How can doctors best communicate health risks?

September 25, 2003

Doctors can improve the ways in which they communicate risk information, according to several articles in this week's Education and Debate section of the BMJ.

Most approaches to communication of risk are based on the assumption that patients rationally review evidence, but for various reasons, we do not think rationally about risk, write Andy Alaszewski and Tom Horlick-Jones. Instead, individuals evaluate the trustworthiness of sources and the relevance of information for their everyday lives.

They suggest that if doctors want to communicate risk effectively to their patients and the public, they need to be aware that they are just one source of information and may no longer be the most trusted.

In another article, researchers from Canada describe how decision aids may help by structuring the way risk information is presented, displaying options, and helping patients to clarify their values in healthcare decisions.

Bad presentation of medical statistics can lead to patients being misled or making uninformed decisions about treatment, warn Gerd Gigerenzer and Adrian Edwards in a third article. They demonstrate that simple mind tools can reduce confusion and suggest that efficient communication of statistical information should be part of medical curriculums.

Finally, John Paling, a consultant in risk communication, offers some simple rules that can help doctors communicate risks clearly.


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