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A Matter of Perspective (Jul-07)

Are opinions on whether health care funding should be rationed dependent on an individual's perspective? Imagine that there are two regional health systems, each responsible for providing health care for one million people. The Director of each system has enough money to fund only one of two medical treatment programs. The health systems have the same limited budget and are the same in every way except for the treatment program that each Director decides to fund.

One Director decides to fund Program A, which will cure 100 people with moderate shortness of breath. People with this condition have shortness of breath when walking an average block with no hills.
The other Director decides to fund Program B, which will cure 100 people with severe shortness of breath. People with this condition have shortness of breath even when walking only short distances, such as from the bedroom to the bathroom.
Which Director made the better decision?
  • Director who funded Program A (moderate shortness of breath)
  • Director who funded Program B (severe shortness of breath)
  • Both choices were equally good
If you chose either the Program A Director or the Program B Director, how may how many people would have to be cured of other condition to make the two choices seem equally good to you? Reminder: Program A and Program B would both cure 100 people.
Next, please check your responses to these statements:
"The thought of only one group of people being able to get treatment while other people may not be able to get treatment makes me feel outraged."
  • strongly agree
  • agree
  • neutral
  • disagree
  • strongly disagree
"I believe that there are situations where health care has to be rationed because sometimes there are not enough financial resources (eg, money for health care programs)."
  • strongly agree
  • agree
  • neutral
  • disagree
  • strongly disagree

How do your answers compare?

Before we analyze your responses to the scenario, we'd like to offer some background information about this area of research.

In an environment of scarce health care resources, policy makers and leaders of health care organizations often must make difficult choices about funding treatment programs. Researchers find out how people value different health states by asking questions like the ones you've answered. This area of research is called "person tradeoff elicitation."

The problem is that many people refuse to give a comparison value, saying that both choices are equal ("equivalence refusal") or saying that millions of people would have to be cured of one condition to be equal to the other treatment choice ("off-scale refusal"). Sometimes these responses are appropriate, but many times these responses seem inappropriate. Furthermore, the frequency of these decision refusals depends on how the questions are asked.

What were the specific goals of this research study?

In an article published by Laura J. Damschroder, Todd R. Roberts, Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher, and Peter A. Ubel (Medical Decision Making, May/June 2007), the authors explored whether people would be more willing to make health care tradeoffs if they were somewhat removed from the decision making role. As part of their study, the researchers asked people to comment on choices made by others, in this case, the Directors of two identical regional health systems. For this study, the researchers anticipated that asking participants to judge someone else's decision would make it easier for the participants to compare the benefit of curing two conditions that have a clear difference in severity. The researchers thought that adopting a perspective of judging someone else's decision might lessen the participants' feeling about making "tragic choices" between groups of patients and hence result in fewer refusals to choose. The researchers also hypothesized that respondents taking a non-decision-maker perspective would be more detached and would feel less outraged about the idea of having to ration medical treatments. As we will explain below, the researchers were surprised to learn that their hypotheses were wrong!

What did this research study find?

Some people surveyed in this study were asked to decide for themselves which of two treatment programs for shortness of breath should be funded. Others, like you, were asked which health system Director made the better decision about treatment programs for shortness of breath. Significantly, the respondents who had the evaluator perspective had nearly two times higher odds of giving an equivalence refusal�that is, saying that the decisions were equal. Why did this evaluator perspective fail to decrease these decision refusals? One possibility is that respondents did not feel as engaged in the decision. It's also possible that respondents felt that they were judging the Directors who made the decision rather than the decision itself. Or maybe respondents didn't want to second-guess the decisions of people they perceived as experts. The researchers predicted that people who had to make the decision about treatment themselves would be more outraged about the idea of rationing health care treatments. This prediction was also wrong! 69% of all respondents agreed that rationing is sometimes necessary, and yet 66% of all respondents also felt outraged about the idea of having to ration. The percentages were nearly the same for those deciding directly and those evaluating the decision of Directors of health care systems.

What conclusions did the researchers draw?

The researchers in this study concluded that perspective definitely matters in making hard choices about allocation of health care resources. They attempted to increase people's willingness to make tradeoffs by changing their perspective from decision maker to evaluator of someone else's decision. These attempts backfired. Contrary to the researchers' predictions, people were dramatically more likely to give equivalence refusals when they were assigned to a non-decision-maker perspective. The researchers also concluded that the degree of emotion aroused by health care rationing also plays a role in people's willingness to make tradeoffs.

So, how does your response to the Directors' decision in the shortness-of-breath scenario compare with the responses of the people surveyed for this study?

If you responded that the choices of both Directors were equal, you were not alone! Overall, with this scenario and related ones, 32% of respondents in the published study refused to make the tradeoff. These were the equivalence refusals. In comparison, 21% of respondents in the study who were asked to decide themselves between two patient groups gave an equivalence refusal.

If you made a choice of Directors in the shortness-of-breath scenario, how does your numerical answer compare with the responses of people surveyed for this study?

In the study, 15% of respondents gave a number of one million or more as the point at which the Directors' decisions about the two treatment programs would be equal. These were the off-scale refusals. In comparison, 19% of respondents in the study who were asked to decide themselves about the two programs gave an off-scale refusal.

What about your level of outrage?

In the study, 69% of respondents agreed that rationing of health care treatment is sometimes necessary, but 66% also felt outraged about the idea of having to ration. These attitudes were the same whether the respondents were assigned an evaluator perspective (as you were) or a direct decision maker perspective.

Read the article:

Why people refuse to make tradeoffs in person tradeoff elicitations: A matter of perspective?
Damschroder LJ, Roberts TR, Zikmund-Fisher BJ, Ubel PA. Medical Decision Making 2007;27:266-288.


The Diabetes Lobby (Dec-09)

Tell us what you think about certain public policies designed to reduce the incidence of diabetes in the US.

Please read this hypothetical news article and then answer a few questions at the end.

People with Diabetes Lobby Congress This Week

Washington, March 28 – About 1000 patients with type 2 diabetes (also commonly known as adult-onset or non-insulin-dependent diabetes) have converged here as advocates for the American Diabetes Association (ADA). They will be meeting with their members of Congress to discuss their condition and advocate for federal policies to address their disease. In addition, they will hold a rally on Thursday of this week on the National Monument grounds, to attract popular attention to their disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 21 million Americans have diabetes, but one-third of these people do not yet know they have the disease. More than 90% of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes, a form of diabetes which typically emerges when people are adults but which may develop during childhood. The number of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes has been increasing every year. There were over 1 million new cases of diabetes diagnosed in 2005 among adults. Researchers believe that the conditions in the neighborhoods where people live increase their chances of getting type 2 diabetes. Rates of diabetes are highest among people living in poor neighborhoods.
People with type 2 diabetes develop a problem with the way their body secretes or responds to insulin, a hormone that regulates blood glucose levels. As a result, they have elevated blood sugar levels, which they must check multiple times per day and monitor their food intake. Researchers are working hard to understand more about what causes type 2 diabetes. Diabetes expert Dr. Howard Smith says, "People who live in neighborhoods where the majority of stores sell food with high calories and low nutritional value, such as fast food restaurants or convenience stores, are much more likely to develop diabetes." Several other scientific studies have supported the idea that people’s neighborhoods, including not having convenient or safe places to exercise, and being exposed to many advertisements selling high-calorie foods, are associated with the development of diabetes.
If left untreated, people with diabetes can become blind, have kidney damage, lose their limbs, or die. Physicians, health plans, employers, and policymakers are considering new ways to prevent diabetes, help patients manage their diabetes, and reduce this deadly epidemic. It is expected that the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, and Labor will consider several bills about diabetes in the upcoming session of Congress.
Some people with diabetes check their blood sugar with a device called a glucometer.
Having read this news article, please tell us if you agree with the following policies:
The government should impose higher taxes on food high in calories and fat, like it does for cigarettes.
  • strongly disagree
  • disagree
  • neutral
  • agree
  • strongly agree
The government should provide financial incentives to encourage grocery stores to locate in areas where there are few.
  • strongly disagree
  • disagree
  • neutral
  • agree
  • strongly agree
The government should regulate advertisements for junk food like it does for cigarettes and alcohol.
  • strongly disagree
  • disagree
  • neutral
  • agree
  • strongly agree

Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or what?

  • Strong Democrat
  • Not so strong Democrat
  • Independent, close to Democrat
  • Independent
  • Independent, close to Republican
  • Not so strong Republican
  • Strong Republican
  • Don't know, haven't thought much about it

How you answered: 

Researchers affiliated with CBDSM and the School of Public Health have found that "Americans' opinions about health policy are polarized on political partisan lines. Democrats and Republicans differ in the ways that they receive and react to messages about the social determinants of health."

In the study, lead author Sarah Gollust, PhD, randomly assigned participants to read one of four hypothetical news articles about type 2 diabetes. Diabetes was used as an example of a common health issue that is widely debated and that is known to have multiple contributing factors, including genetic predisposition, behavioral choices, and social determinants (such as income or neighborhood environments).

The articles were identical except for the causal frame embedded in the text. The article that you read in this Decision of the Month presented social determinants as a cause for type 2 diabetes. Other versions of the article presented genetic predisposition or behavioral choices as a cause for type 2 diabetes, and one version had no causal language.

Dr. Gollust then asked the study participants their views of seven nonmedical governmental policies related to the environmental, neighborhood, or economic determinants of diabetes:

  • bans on fast food concessions in public schools
  • incentives for grocery stores to establish locations where there are currently few
  • bans on trans fat in restaurants
  • government investment in parks
  • regulating junk food advertisements
  • imposing taxes on junk foods
  • subsidizing the costs of healthy food

Dr. Gollust also asked participants their political party identification and a number of other self-reported characteristics.

The most dramatic finding of this study was that the news story with the social determinants as a cause for type 2 diabetes had significantly different effects on the policy views of participants, depending on whether they identified themselves as Democrats or Republicans. After reading the social determinants article, Democrats expressed a higher level of support for the proposed public health policies. Republicans expressed a lower level of support for the proposed public health policies. This effect occurred only in the group of participants who were randomly assigned to read the version of the news article with social determinants given as a cause for type 2 diabetes. Dr. Gollust summarizes: "Exposure to the social determinants message produced a divergence of opinion by political party, with Democrats and Republicans differing in their opinions by nearly 0.5 units of the 5-point scale."

The study suggests several possible explanations for these results:

"First, the social determinants media frame may have presumed a liberal worldview to which the Republican study participants disagreed or found factually erroneous (ie, not credible), but with which Democrats felt more comfortable or found more familiar. . . Second, media consumption is becoming increasingly polarized by party identification, and . . . the social determinants message may have appeared particularly biased to Republicans. . .Third, the social determinants frame may have primed, or activated, study participants' underlying attitudes about the social group highlighted in the news article. . . Fourth, participants' party identification likely serves as proxy for . . . values held regarding personal versus social responsibility for health."

Dr. Gollust and her colleagues conclude that if public health advocates want to mobilize the American public to support certain health policies, a segmented communication approach may be needed. Some subgroups of Americans will not find a message about social determinants credible. These subgroups value personal responsibility and find social determinants antagonistic to their worldview. To avoid triggering immediate resistance by these citizens to information about social determinants of health, public health advocates may consider the use of information about individual behavioral factors in educational materials, while working to build public familiarity with and acceptance of research data on social determinants.

For more details about this study:

Gollust SE, Lantz PM, Ubel PA, The polarizing effect of news media messages about the social determinants of health, Am J Public Health 2009, 99:2160-2167.


Fri, February 02, 2018

Check out Dr. Kathy Miller's Medscape Oncology Insights interview with Reshma Jagsi from the 2017 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) about why physicians often overtreat elderly breast cancer patients.

Sun, November 14, 2010

Raymond De Vries, Professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine and the Departments of Medical Education and Obstetrics and Gynecology, authored a commentary in a Dutch national newspaper examining media misrepresentation of a recent article in the British Medical Journal about perinatal death in the Netherlands.  Dr. De Vries and colleague Lisa Kane Low, Director of Midwifery Education, will present at a conference, Knowledge in Business, sponsored by the Zuyd University in Maastricht.

Along with Ted A. Skolarus, M.D., M.P.H., CBSSM Co-Director, Angela Fagerlin authored a Viewpoint article titled "Rethinking Patient-Physician Communication of Biopsy Results -- The Waiting Game." In the article, they conclude, "Telemedicine approaches can potentially relieve much of the anxiety associated with in-person consultations while delivering bad news in a timely, compassionate, and patient-centered manner."

CBSSM Faculty, Brian Zikmund-Fisher, Tanner Caverly, and Jeffrey Kullgren were co-authors on a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine Article on Why Doctors Order Unnecessary Scans for Back Pain. Erika Sears, MD, MS was the lead author.

The study was highlighted in UMHS news release here.

Research Topics: 

Lisa Szymecko, JD, PhD


Lisa Szymecko joined CBSSM in May 2012 as a Research Area Specialist Intermediate, working as the study coordinator for Susan Goold on the DECIDERS and PCORI projects.

Lisa earned her Bachelors of Science degree in Chemical Engineering from Michigan Technological University, her Juris Doctorate from Detroit College of Law, and her PhD in Resource Development from Michigan State University.

Last Name: 

Bioethics Grand Rounds: Musical Event "When Death Comes Callin"

Wed, October 26, 2016, 12:00pm
UH Ford Amphitheater & Lobby

When Death Comes Callin': Songs and Reflections About Death

Charlotte DeVries, Jeanne Mackey, Merilynne Rush, and friends offer a program of songs and brief readings reflecting various perspectives on death - humorous, sad, thoughtful, and quirky.

Lunch is provided on a first-come, first-served basis.

Lewis Morgenstern, MD