People in the U.S. make decisions about their health on a regular basis. For example,they are often asked to consider taking medication to treat common health problems, such as hypertension. But do patients have sufficient information to make these decisions? And what factors might influence the knowledge patients have, and their treatment decisions?
Consider this scenario:
Bob is a 52-year-old man who went to see his physician for a routine check-up. Bob’s doctor told him his cholesterol levels were slightly elevated and suggested cholesterol medication. Bob wondered how long he would have to take the medication, and whether there would be any side effects. Please answer the following two questions about cholesterol medications.
When people start taking cholesterol medications, how long is it usually recommended that they take them?
- less than 6 months
- 6-12 months
- 1-3 years
- for the rest of their lives
How do your answers compare?
Making an informed medical decision about whether to take cholesterol medications depends, at least in part, on understanding how long a medication should be taken and whether there are side effects. CBSSM investigators Angela Fagerlin, Mick Couper, and Brian Zikmund-Fisher recently published an article on patient knowledge from the DECISIONS study, a large survey of U.S. adults about common medical decisions. One main objective of the study was to determine adults’ knowledge about information relevant to common types of medication, screening, or surgery decisions they recently made. Data were collected from 2575 English-speaking adults aged 40 years and older who reported having discussed common medical decisions with a health care provider within the previous two years. Participants answered knowledge questions and rated the importance of their health care provider, family/friends, and the media as sources of information about common medical issues.
People taking cholesterol medications usually should take them for about 3 or more years, and perhaps even for the rest of their lives. A little more than 60% of the study respondents accurately identified the time to take cholesterol medications.
Many people have trouble with this question and do not know that muscle pain is the most commonly reported side effect of cholesterol medications. Only 17% of DECISIONS study respondents were able to answer this question correctly. About 1 in 5 respondents incorrectly identified liver problems as the most common side effect of cholesterol medications.
Overall, the investigators found that patient knowledge of key facts relevant to recently made medical decisions was often poor. In addition, knowledge varied widely across questions and decision contexts. For example, 78% of patients considering cataract surgery correctly estimated typical recovery time, compared to 29% of patients considering surgery for lower back pain or 39% of patients considering a knee or hip replacement. Similarly, in thinking about cancer screening tests, participants were more knowledgeable of facts about colorectal cancer screening than those who were asked about breast or prostate cancer. Respondents were consistently more knowledgeable on questions about blood pressure medication than cholesterol medication or antidepressants.
The impact of demographic characteristics and sources of information also varied substantially. For example, black respondents had lower knowledge than white respondents about cancer screening decisions and medication, even after controlling for other demographic factors. Researchers found no race differences for surgical decisions, however.
The authors concluded by noting that improving patient knowledge about risks, benefits, and characteristics of medical procedures is essential to support informed decision making.
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