Physicians recommend different treatments for patients than they would choose for themselves

Background  Patients facing difficult decisions often ask physicians for recommendations. However, little is known regarding the ways that physicians' decisions are influenced by the act of making a recommendation.

Methods  We surveyed 2 representative samples of US primary care physicians—general internists and family medicine specialists listed in the American Medical Association Physician Masterfile—and presented each with 1 of 2 clinical scenarios. Both involved 2 treatment alternatives, 1 of which yielded abetter chance of surviving a fatal illness but at the cost of potentially experiencing unpleasant adverse effects. We randomized physicians to indicate which treatment they would choose if they were the patient or they were recommending a treatment to a patient.

Results  Among those asked to consider our colon cancer scenario (n = 242), 37.8% chose the treatment with a higher death rate for themselves but only 24.5% recommended this treatment to a hypothetical patient (21 = 4.67, P = .03). Among those receiving our avian influenza scenario (n = 698), 62.9% chose the outcome with the higher death rate for themselves but only 48.5% recommended this for patients (21 = 14.56, P < .001).

Conclusions  The act of making a recommendation changes the ways that physicians think regarding medical choices. Better understanding of this thought process will help determine when or whether recommendations improve decision making.

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