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A Matter of Perspective: Choosing for Others Differs from Choosing for Yourself in Making Treatment Decisions

Journal of General Internal Medicine
Publication Date
  • Medicine


Many people display omission bias in medical decision making, accepting the risk of passive nonintervention rather than actively choosing interventions (such as vaccinations) that result in lower levels of risk. OBJECTIVE : Testing whether people's preferences for active interventions would increase when deciding for others versus for themselves. RESEARCH DESIGN : Survey participants imagined themselves in 1 of 4 roles: patient, physician treating a single patient, medical director creating treatment guidelines, or parent deciding for a child. All read 2 short scenarios about vaccinations for a deadly flu and treatments for a slow-growing cancer. PARTICIPANTS : Two thousand three hundred and ninety-nine people drawn from a demographically stratified internet sample. MEASURES : Chosen or recommended treatments. We also measured participants' emotional response to our task. RESULTS : Preferences for risk-reducing active treatments were significantly stronger for participants imagining themselves as medical professionals than for those imagining themselves as patients (vaccination: 73% [physician] & 63% [medical director] vs 48% [patient], P s<.001; chemotherapy: 68% & 68% vs 60%, P s<.012). Similar results were observed for the parental role (vaccination: 57% vs 48%, P =.003; chemotherapy: 72% vs 60%, P <.001). Reported emotional reactions were stronger in the responsible medical professional and parental roles yet were also independently associated with treatment choice, with higher scores associated with reduced omission tendencies (OR=1.15 for both regressions, P s<.01). CONCLUSIONS : Treatment preferences may be substantially influenced by a decision-making role. As certain roles appear to reinforce “big picture” thinking about difficult risk tradeoffs, physicians and patients should consider re-framing treatment decisions to gain new, and hopefully beneficial, perspectives.

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