Risk Communication: The Next Step for Doctor-Patient Relationships

Key points

  • Risk communication requires standardization amongst medical professionals in the UK

  • Our research will help shed light on the best techniques for risk communication in medical practice

My sister entered the hospital this past year after her university physicians casually mentioned she likely had a mouth infection that had a 95% mortality rate. After arriving at the hospital, this life-altering medical condition turned out to be nothing more than an infection that was relatively harmless and would go away within three days with antibiotics. However, this experience begs the question, “How could she have been presented with the relevant information in a more sensitive and efficient manner?”



Though these events took place in the US, they represent a familiar circumstance in today’s medical environment. In the UK, GPs within the NHS system only have 10 minutes with a patient. During this time, the physician needs to make a diagnosis, assess the seriousness of the condition, chart a path forward, and present the relevant information to the patient. This issue is further complicated by the shortage of physicians in the UK. Consequently, physicians must balance their schedules with all the patients just to see as many as possible, working well beyond the resources they have available. This means that the time spent with each patient is even more valuable, and must be used efficiently.

Therefore, the overarching question for physicians is how to effectively communicate all the risks of specific ailments and medications to patients in a comprehensive and sensitive manner. Meanwhile, patients must know what questions to ask and how to extract as much information as possible during a GP visit. Our project will therefore focus on this conundrum: what sort of recommendations can we make in order to ensure that patients are getting all the information they need to make informed decisions? How feasible are these options?

Our project will consist of a literature review and phone interviews with GPs. We will examine academic articles summarizing the existing risk communication techniques. Very few of these articles actually list concrete recommendations; instead, they summarise what is in use or present very general - but not uniform - practices. We will compile these resources to come up with 5-10 clear and actionable recommendations. Secondly, our review of grey literature will take us to various organizations, such as the BMA, RCP, NICE and patient and practitioner advocacy groups, to examine and compare each set of recommendations for risk communication. Our phone interviews will ask GPs about their own personal experiences communicating risk to patients and the guidelines they currently use. Their suggestions and critiques of any current policies will certainly influence our recommendations and provide some semblance of a unified voice for physicians in the UK.

By the end of this report, we hope to present a list of recommendations for physicians to optimize the methods of risk communications to patients as well as hard data to back up our assertions. With the current state of medical practice in the UK, making sure physicians have effective tools with which to inform patients is a priority for improving care.

About me

Daniel Muller, is a graduate of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, USA and is currently pursuing an MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Cambridge. His team is composed of Lucia Algara, Hera Asad, Luc Francis, and Olivia Healey under Branch Editor Anna Yakovleva, and Dr. David Neal and his new company Vesalian commissioned the report.

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