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Same patient, different advice: a study into why doctors vary


Aim: To understand why doctors differ in their recommendations in situations where there is little certainty about the long term outcomes of the possible treatment options.

Methods: A correlational design was used to examine the relation between preference for different treatment options and beliefs about likely outcomes for these options. Eighty doctors, with a mean of nine years in paediatric cardiology/surgery, attending a conference on serious congenital heart disease were studied. Main outcome measures were: ratings of the extent to which each of four treatment options were favoured; and subjective probabilities for three outcomes—death, survival with “good heart function” (New York Heart Association functional class (NYHA) I or II), and survival with “poor heart function” (NYHA III or IV)—for different treatment options over a 20 year time frame.

Results: Preference for one treatment option over another was most closely associated with the subjective estimate of the additional years with “good heart function” that it offered 10–20 years after surgery (Pearson’s r = 0.66, p < 0.001). In influencing a preference, the possibility of early death was subordinate to optimising the late outcome.

Conclusions: Doctors’ treatment preferences are consistent with selecting the option that maximises the chance of the best outcome (long term survival with good heart function). Doctors’ recommendations imply that they place more value on years of life in the child’s far future than on life-years in the immediate future.

  • decision making
  • treatment preferences
  • univentricular heart
  • subjective probability of outcomes
  • NYHA, New York Heart Association
  • TCPC, total cavopulmonary connections

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