A survey conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan has found that patients hear far more from doctors about the pros than cons of medications, tests and surgeries.
Much of the time, physicians tend to offer opinions, not options, the researchers found, and rarely mention that patients can decide not to do anything.
Subjects were asked about decisions they made with health care providers within the past two years regarding common medical issues: screening tests for colorectal cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer; taking prescription drugs for hypertension, high cholesterol and depression; having surgery for knee or hip replacement, cataracts and lower back pain.
More than three-quarters of the patients had made at least one of those decisions in the past two years and half had made two or more.
The study found that doctors, nurses and others were much more likely to promote the advantages of a treatment or test while skipping the negatives. Only 20 percent of the patients who were informed about breast cancer screening were told about possible risks, such as false positive results, while half had the screening promoted as a benefit.
According to Dr. Michael Barry, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, the study clearly demonstrates that people routinely make poorly informed medical decisions.
Health policy experts consider it vital that patients fully understand both the benefits and risks of medicine, and that they have the right and power to say no to suggested treatment. In Ontario doctors are legally obligated to discuss treatment options with their patient.