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Useful tips for informing patients about risks

The vast majority of patients would like more explanations in order to better understand their state of health and to participate in therapeutic choices that affect them. How can healthcare professionals deliver this?

Communication between health professionals and patients is not always easy, for a number of reasons. The interpretation of statistics in particular is sensitive, especially because emotional, social and cultural factors come into play.

Prescrire offers health professionals some pointers to help them communicate better when they need to inform patients of the risks of complications of their disease or the likelihood of an adverse drug effect.

Recommendations include:

  • Start by clearly stating the context of the possible event; describe the risk in concrete terms, such as a risk of disability or illness with its consequences on the patient’s life, or a risk of death.
  • Avoid terms such as "low risk" and "high risk", since they are subject to very different interpretations.
  • Express probabilities as an absolute risk, and not a relative risk, as this is easier to grasp: for example, "out of 100 people taking this drug, 30 people suffer from this problem".
  • Use the same denominator in the populations being compared, to avoid distorting the perception of frequency.
  • Present the same risk from different perspectives, since the perception of risk differs depending on whether the occurrence or the non-occurrence of the adverse event is described.
  • Use a visual aid in addition to oral explanations. This can make it easier to understand figures

Following these simple tips can help patients to understand the issues at stake, and to participate in decisions concerning their health.

©Prescrire 1 June 2019

"Improving communication of risk to patients" Prescrire Int 2019; 28 (205): 162-163. (Pdf, subscribers only).

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See also:

Treatment objectives: should
be shared with patients
(November 2012)