Introduction: Through shared decision making, the physician and patient exchange information to arrive at an agreement about the patient’s preferred treatment. This process is predicated on the assumption that there is a single preferred treatment, and the goal of the dialog is to discover it. In contrast, psychology theory (ie, prospect theory) suggests that people can make decisions both analytically and intuitively through parallel decision-making processes, and depending on how the choice is framed, the two processes may not agree. Thus, patients may not have a single preferred treatment, but rather separate intuitive and analytic preferences. The research question addressed here is whether subjects might reveal different therapeutic preferences based on how a decision is framed.
Methods: Five clinical scenarios on the management of tibial plateau fractures were constructed. Healthy volunteers were asked to select among treatments offered. Four weeks later, the scenarios were presented again; the facts of the scenario were unchanged, but the description was altered to test the null hypothesis that minor changes in wording would not lead the subjects to change their decision about treatment. For example, incomplete improvement after surgery was described first as a gain from the preoperative state and then as a loss from the preinjury state.
Results: In all five cases, the variation predicted by psychology theory was detected. Respondents were affected by whether choices were framed as avoided losses versus potential gains; by emotional cues; by choices reported by others (ie, bandwagon effect); by the answers proposed to them in the question (ie, anchors); and by seemingly irrelevant options (ie, decoys).
Discussion: The influence of presentation on preferences can be highly significant in orthopaedic surgery. The presence of parallel decision-making processes implies that the standard methods of obtaining informed consent may require further refinement. Furthermore, if the way that information is portrayed makes surgery more or less appealing, the use of services may be subject to unwanted influence. If surgery were accepted preoperatively by the patient’s intuitive process but evaluated after the fact by the analytic process (or vice versa), well-indicated and well-performed surgery may still fail to provide patient satisfaction.