Do Patients Want All the Info Available from Their Doctors?

By Tiffani Sherman
November 13, 2017

Information avoidance make conversations with their doctors difficult, but it’s not insurmountable.

Do people really want all the information available to them? A recent study says most people seem to prefer covering their ears for some things — including their health.

“This was a review of the literature of information avoidance, and the primary thing we found was that information avoidance is pretty common,” says Russell Golman, assistant professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. “I think part of the problem is people don’t want to be dealing with bad things.”

The research, published in the March 2017 issue of the quarterly Journal of Economic Literature, showed many people deliberately avoid news that could affect their happiness. They do this in many ways, including not seeking information contrary to what they want to believe or dismissing some material all together.

Russell Golman

Russell Golman

Golman describes it as, “If I don’t know, I can believe what I want to believe.”

To explain what he means, he uses a cheeseburger as an example. Many restaurants put nutritional information on menus with the intent of helping people make healthy choices. Yet sometimes, a person just wants to enjoy a greasy, messy, tasty burger and not worry about the calories.

“If I don’t know how many calories are in a cheeseburger, I don’t know if I have veered off my diet or not,” Golman says. “The information helps people make better choices, but only if they get it.” 

Making sure people get the information they need to make better choices is essential. For physicians, that means recognizing typical human behavior — and the tendency to ignore information that might impact wellbeing. Understanding this behavior can help physicians have more meaningful conversations with patients.

“What are the questions the patient is already asking?” Golman says. Use those questions to try to figure out the patient’s mindset and frame responses around that, giving information to a patient in a way he or she would be most receptive to receiving it.

The Carnegie Mellon study showed failure to obtain information is the way most people avoid potentially negative information. As an example, he uses genetic testing for Huntington’s disease, a fatal genetic disorder that breaks down nerve cells in the brain. Research shows people who had a genetic test for the disease and tested negative acted the same as the people who had not had a test and therefore did not know whether they would get the disease, supporting the ignorance-is-bliss theory.

Realizing this is how people often act can help guide physicians as they approach patients with such tough topics as genetic testing. It can be helpful to frame the conversation in a positive way.

“I don’t think [information avoidance is] always harmful, but often it is. Having all the information can help people make better decisions,” Golman says.

In the case of Huntington’s, people with information can make informed family planning and financial decisions.

“People don’t often anticipate they will be able to move on from bad news and recover from it,” Golman says, adding that they often do.

But how do you give information contrary to a patient’s beliefs? That can be tricky.

“I don’t want to say, ‘Only tell good things,’ ” Golman says, adding maybe additional conversations at different times might be necessary instead of bombarding a patient with all kinds of information at once. “We would suggest the feelings people have are quite real and people often need the complete information. People are often wary of considering people’s feelings when considering information.”

Tiffani Sherman is a freelance health care writer based in Florida.

Topics: Education

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