Give me colostomy or give me death! (Aug-06)

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Click to decide between death and living with a colostomy. Which would you choose? Are you sure?

Given the choice, would you choose immediate death,or living with a colostomy (where part of your bowel is removed and you have bowel movements into a plastic pouch attached to your belly)?

  •  Immediate Death
  •  Colostomy

Think about what it would be like if you were diagnosed with colon cancer. You are given the option of choosing between two surgical treatments.The first is a surgery that could result in serious complications and the second has no chance of complications but has a higher mortality rate.

Possible outcome Surgery 1
(complicated)
Surgery 2 
(uncomplicated)
Cure without complication 80% 80%
Cure with colostomy 1%  
Cure with chronic diarrhea 1%  
Cure with intermittent bowel obstruction 1%  
Cure with wound infection 1%  
No cure (death) 16% 20%

If you had the type of colon cancer described above, which surgery do you think you would choose?

  • Surgery 1
  • Surgery 2

How do your answers compare?

In fact, past research has shown that 51% people choose the surgery with a higher death rate, even though most of them initially preferred each of the four surgical complications, including colostomy, over immediate death.

Are you saying what you really mean?

CBDSM investigators Brian Zikmund-Fisher, Angela Fagerlin, Peter Ubel, teamed up with Jennifer Amsterlaw, to see if they could reduce the number of people choosing the surgery with the higher rate of death and therefore reducing the discrepancy. A large body of past research has shown that people are notoriously averse to uncertainty. The investigators had a hunch that uncertainty could account for some of the discrepancy. Surgery 1 has a greater number of ambiguous outcomes, perhaps causing people to be averse to it. In an effort to minimize this uncertainty, the investigators laid out a series of scenarios outlining different circumstances and presentations of the two surgeries. For example the research presented some of the participants with a reframing of the surgery information, such as:

Possible outcome Surgery 1
(complicated)
Surgery 2 
(uncomplicated)
Cured without complication 80% 80%
Cured, but with one of the following complications: colostomy, chronic diarrhea, intermittent bowl obstruction, or wound infection 4%  
No cure (death) 16% 20%

The investigators believed by grouping all of the complications together that people would be more apt to chose the surgery with the lower mortality rate, because seeing a single group of undesirable outcomes, versus a list, may decrease some of the ambiguity from previous research.

Although none of the manipulations significantly reduced the percentage of participants selecting Surgery 2, the versions that yielded the lowest preference for this surgery all grouped the risk of the four possible complications into a single category, as in the example shown above.

Why these findings are important

Over the past several decades there has been a push to give patients more information so they can make decisions that are consistent with their personal preferences. On the other hand there is a growing psychological literature revealing people's tendency to make choices that are in fact inconsistent with their own preferences; this is a dilemma. Because the present research suggests that the discrepancy between value and surgery choice is extremely resilient, much research still needs to be done in order to understand what underlies the discrepancy, with the goal of eliminating it.

The research reported in this decision of the month is currently in press. Please come back to this page in the near future for a link to the article.

Read the article:

Can avoidance of complications lead to biased healthcare decisions?
Amsterlaw J, Zikmund-Fisher BJ, Fagerlin A, Ubel PA. Judgment and Decision Making 2006;1(1):64-75.