Medical Treatment: Patients and 'Shared Decision Making'

When there are choices, a growing number of doctors and hospitals make your preferences count.

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When it came to charting a path for her breast cancer treatment, Kathy Sabadosa, 43, realized she'd rather preserve a lifestyle of skiing, running, biking, and caring for two young kids than save her figure. After her diagnosis two years ago, Sabadosa's first inclination was to have her whole breast removed and to undergo reconstructive surgery. But after her surgeon drew Sabadosa out about her priorities and how she might handle reconstruction's possible side effects (arm swelling, shoulder problems, scarring around an implant), she decided to skip that step. "My arm and shoulder functioning was much more important to me," says Sabadosa, who lives in Norwich, Vt.

[Read: Breast Cancer Risk Is Not So Easy to Figure Out.]

Sabadosa's experience is not typical in American medicine, where more commonly the doctor speaks and the patient listens. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where she was treated, is one of 12 centers around the country testing a formal process of "shared decision making" for a number of conditions that have two or more treatment options—from low back pain and knee or hip osteoarthritis to uterine fibroids and coronary artery disease. By digesting educational DVDs and other literature, Sabadosa got a clear and unbiased explanation of the risks and benefits of lumpectomy, mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy. Specially trained counselors helped her identify her feelings about living with the consequences of each option. Her doctors made recommendations guided by Sabadosa's preferences, which they talked through on multiple occasions. And Sabadosa was given ample time to mull over her choices.

Misinformed. By contrast, here's what people more typically do after a diagnosis: Gather up a hodgepodge of information—online and by talking to friends—that is often incomplete, inaccurate, and incomprehensible. "Generally speaking, the perception of chances of good and bad outcomes is very poor," says Annette O'Connor, a researcher at the University of Ottawa in Canada who has long studied how best to get patients informed. A patient may think a treatment is going to cure him when it might only lessen symptoms, for example, or that the risks are more serious than they actually are. The Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making (www.informedmedicaldecisions.org), a nonprofit patient advocacy group that is supporting the 12 centers, cites research showing that most people can't answer even basic questions about their illnesses. Often, they simply defer to their physician. But doctors rarely give comprehensive information. Time is short, they often have biases—surgery and rehab for that torn ligament beats trying rest, exercise, or physical therapy, say—and many assume patients don't want the burden of overwhelming information.

And decades of research from the Dartmouth Atlas Project, which analyzes how medicine is practiced across the country, has shown that the treatments a person gets are influenced, surprisingly, by local clinicians' practice patterns. So, depending where you live, you could be many times more likely to undergo aggressive treatment—for example, heart bypass surgery or stenting for diagnosed coronary artery disease even when a more conservative approach of lifestyle changes plus medications would have been a legitimate option. "Patients, when well informed, will make different decisions than doctors—with no adverse outcomes, and maybe better outcomes," says James Weinstein, who is chair of orthopedic surgery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and its medical director of shared decision making. Patients also tend to choose more conservative—and often cheaper—treatments when well informed. Indeed, health reform may usher in an era of shared decision making. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has pitched a pilot program to implement it for the 11 conditions that rack up 40 percent of Medicare spending on inpatient surgery, including early-stage prostate and breast cancers and osteoarthritis of the knee, hip, and spine. Doing so, according to an estimate by the Lewin Group, a healthcare consulting firm, could save $4 billion in 2010.