Med Decis Making. 2021 Mar 25:272989X211001841. doi: 10.1177/0272989X211001841. Online ahead of print.
BACKGROUND: Physicians who communicate their prognostic beliefs to patients must balance candor against other competing goals, such as preserving hope, acknowledging the uncertainty of medicine, or motivating patients to follow their treatment regimes.
OBJECTIVE: To explore possible differences between the beliefs physicians report as their own and those they express to patients and colleagues.
DESIGN: An online panel of 398 specialists in internal medicine who completed their medical degrees and practiced in the United States provided their estimated diagnostic accuracy and prognostic assessments for a randomly assigned case. In addition, they reported the diagnostic and prognostic assessments they would report to patients and colleagues more generally. Physicians answered questions about how and why their own beliefs differed from their expressed beliefs to patients and colleagues in the specific case and more generally in their practice.
RESULTS: When discussing beliefs about prognoses to patients and colleagues, most physicians expressed beliefs that differed from their own beliefs. Physicians were more likely to express greater optimism when talking to patients about poor prognoses than good prognoses. Physicians were also more likely to express greater uncertainty to patients when prognoses were poor than when they were good. The most common reasons for the differences between physicians' own beliefs and their expressed beliefs were preserving hope and acknowledging the inherent uncertainty of medicine.
CONCLUSION: To balance candor against other communicative goals, physicians tended to express beliefs that were more optimistic and contained greater uncertainty than the beliefs they said were their own, especially in discussions with patients whose prognoses were poor.