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A Risky Business

Kamal Mahtani
Last edited 17th August 2011

A great deal of General Practice is essentially about managing risk. Every time a patient walks through your consulting door you are basically thinking “what are the chances of this patient coming to harm from what they are about to tell me?” Some patients will fall into a category of “high risk” needing immediate or quick treatment. Others may have a degree of risk that necessitates either further investigations or monitoring. Or there may be low risk cases which can be assessed, reassured or treated. This is all supposed to happen within 10 minutes.

But how far should we go to convey that risk to our patients and what is the best way to do it? A recent scenario at my practice made me pause for thought. The cardiologists had advised us to have a discussion with a patient on the merits and risks of aspirin versus warfarin for their atrial fibrillation.

How could that conversation go?

“Right Mr X, the cardiologists have written to me and asked me to help you decide between warfarin or aspirin. They mention in the letter that the risk of you now having a stroke is about 6% per year, however aspirin reduces that risk by about 25% but with warfarin there is about a 45% risk reduction. However, the number needed to treat with warfarin is 37, but bear in mind that warfarin increases the annual absolute risk of major haemorrhage by 2%, so it’s up to you, which one would you prefer? ”

“umm…I’m sorry Doctor, I didn’t understand all of that”

“No neither did I”

So how should we explain risk to patients? The 2002 BMJ clinical review “Explaining risks: turning numerical data into meaningful pictures” by Edwards and colleagues is certainly worth a read. More recently, a study in the Annals of Family Medicine also tried to answer the question. The group surveyed 934 consecutive patients drawn from family practitioners’ waiting rooms in Auckland, New Zealand. Patients were asked to rate how much various modes of communicating the benefits of therapy, to their 5-year CVD risk score, would encourage them to take medication daily. The modes offered to them included: relative risk, absolute risk, odds, number needed to treat, and natural frequencies. The same information was presented in 2 pictorial forms (bar graphs and 10 × 10 people charts). Most patients (61.8%) preferred a doctor to give an opinion than to explain using either numbers or pictures. More than half also preferred a pictorial presentation to numbers; and of the numerical presentations patients found relative risk reduction most encouraging, with absolute risk reduction rated second overall and numbers needed to treat (NNT) the least likely to be persuasive to take their medication.

So should this mean to our practice? Remember EBM is the integration of the best clinical practice, personal expertise and individual patient preference. The latter component is dependent upon the patient fully understanding the risks and benefits of treatment so that a shared management plan can be reached. Having an idea of what those risks mean ourselves is the first step but finding the best way to convey it to our individual patients in as simplest way as possible is perhaps the bigger challenge.

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