Risk Talk : On Communicating Benefits and Harms in Health Care

Abstract: One of the most critical elements in empowering the patient, and ensuring concordance, is communication of the possible benefits and harms of different actions in health care. Risk assessment is a complex task due both to the different interpretations of the concept of risk, and the common lack of hard facts. Hormone, or hormone replacement, therapy (HT) is used by many women in, and after, the menopause. The benefits and possible harms associated with short and long term treatment with HT have been extensively discussed the last decade and the use of HT has decreased dramatically internationally the last few years.The aims of this thesis were to study the interaction between patient and physician when discussing risks and benefits of different treatment alternatives, and to suggest strategies to improve risk communication in clinical practice. The studies have focused on how risks and benefits with HT were communicated between women and physicians during firsttime consultations in 1999- 2000 on this subject (20 women, 5 gynaecologists), and through questionnaires how attitudes towards HT have changed between 1999 (n=1,760) and 2003 (n=1,733) among women entering the menopause (53-54 years).Through a qualitative analysis of the risk communication in the consultations a system was constructed to classify how risk is communicated in relation to benefits. This was used to assess and present differences in risk communication in the consultations. Different rhetorical strategies by the physicians were identified and the dominating tendency was a move from the woman’s current problems to the long-term effects of HT.The questionnaires showed a marked difference in attitudes towards HT between the years. In 2003 women perceived HT to be associated with higher risk and less benefits than in 1999. This correlated to a drastic reduction in the use of HT over the same period. Media was the most frequent source of information about HT during the last twelve months before the questionnaire in 2003.Possible explanations for the different attitudes towards HT between women entering the menopause and gynaecologist; how this difference might have influenced the results; and how they may have implications for future communication strategies are discussed. This thesis illustrates the importance of a deeper understanding in health care of the concept of risk in order to achieve an adequate communication of risk. This is important both in consultations and in campaigns to educate and inform the public.