Informed Consent: Alternatives to “Weighing Risk and Benefits”

By Robert L. Moore, MD, MPH, MBA, Chief Medical Officer

“Beware of words – they are dangerous things. They change color like the chameleon, and they return like a boomerang.”

–Dr. William Osler

The words we choose to use in our interactions with patients convey underlying meaning. Sometimes this underlying meaning can affect patient decision-making in unintentional ways.

In an editorial in the September 8, 2020 edition of JAMA, entitled “Improving Physician Communication About Treatment Decisions: Reconsideration of “Risks vs Benefits,” the authors argue that the commonly-used phrase “risks vs benefits” implies that harms from a procedure are possible, but the benefits are assured. This asymmetry would be corrected by using the phrase, “weighing the chance of harm and chance of benefit” of a particular intervention.

One physician responded to the editorial, noting that additionally, the “chance of harm if nothing is done” must also be accounted for, if a complete picture of the probabilities to be weighed is to be presented.

This may be the most accurate presentation of everything a patient must consider, but humans have difficulty understanding what the probability of an outcome really means. Experts in shared decision-making recommend using visual representations of probability, or comparing the probability to something more understandable, like the probability of a car accident while driving home.

Such devices may still be too hard to grasp for patients seeking certainty when making decisions. Such a desire for certainly is a big driver of vaccine hesitancy, in which the absence of certainty of safety of an intervention is used to default to not taking action.

Logically, a decision of whether to act or not should balance the chances of harm or benefit of the intervention, accounting for the chances of harm of no action. In reality human brains are generally wired to choose to not take action if they are not certain of what they want. Psychologists call this omission bias, the tendency to favor an act of omission (inaction) over one of commission (action).

Of course, this is just one of many biases, which come into play in the clinical interaction between clinician and patient that may impact the patient’s willingness to undergo an intervention.

Nonetheless, changing our language from “weighing risks vs benefits” to “considering the chance of harm and the chance of benefit of the intervention with the chance of harm of doing nothing” may help some patients weigh their options in making therapeutic decisions.