Tailoring Risk Communication to Improve Comprehension: Do Patient Preferences Help or Hurt?

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Objective: Risk communication tools can facilitate patients’ understanding of risk information. In this novel study, we examine the hypothesis that risk communication methods tailored to individuals’ preferences can increase risk comprehension. Method: Preferences for breast cancer risk formats, and risk comprehension data were collected using an online survey from 361 women at high risk for breast cancer. Women’s initial preferences were assessed by asking them which of the following risk formats would be the clearest: (a) percentage, (b) frequency, (c) bar graph, (d) pictogram, and (e) comparison to other women. Next, women were presented with 5 different formats for displaying cancer risks and asked to interpret the risk information presented. Finally, they were asked again which risk format they preferred. Results: Initial preferences for risk formats were not associated with risk comprehension scores. However, women with lower risk comprehension scores were more likely to update their risk format preferences after they evaluated risks in different formats. Less numerate women were more likely to prefer graphical rather than numeric risk formats. Importantly, we found that women preferring graphical risk formats had lower risk comprehension in these formats compared to numeric formats. In contrast, women preferring numeric formats performed equally well across formats. Conclusions: Our findings suggest that tailoring risk communication to patient preferences may not improve understanding of medical risks, particularly for less numerate women, and point to the potential perils of tailoring risk communication formats to patient preferences.

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