For patients, choosing which treatment option is best for themselves can be quite difficult. Making it easier for them is a key way for practitioners to gain new clients, so let’s take a look at how these decisions are made, and what you can be doing to assure patients that your treatment is right for them.

The Psychology of Decision Making

Although individual people vary greatly, we know from psychological studies that on the whole, people don’t like risk. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky called this the “loss aversion” principle – a disadvantage or loss is felt more strongly than any gain or advantage, so people will try to avoid it. 

Another factor that affects decision making is the number of options available. You might assume that a large choice of options will increase the chances of a patient finding one that is suitable, but evidence from psychology studies would say otherwise. While people generally feel good about having a personal choice, more choice can actually be demotivating, leading to people giving up altogether and deciding to not make any choice at all – a phenomenon known as “choice overload”. 

Interestingly, it’s not just the number of options that makes the decision difficult – it’s also the complexity of the comparison. If the options are too similar or too different, people are likely to struggle to choose the best one, and report feeling unsatisfied with their choice.

Decision Making in Healthcare

When we apply these psychological principles of decision making to healthcare, we see that loss, or risk, aversion means that if a treatment option comes with some risks or side-effects, patients will be less likely to want to go with it. If treatment option A comes with the risk of headaches as a side-effect, the loss aversion principle tells us that the patient would choose option B, the option that does not carry this risk. 

This may seem a bit obvious, but the crucial point of the loss aversion principle is that risks are avoided, even if it means that the gains are smaller. So, let’s say the outcome of treatment option A was a guaranteed improvement of pain, while option B’s outcome was only a small chance of a moderate improvement in pain. The patient would still choose option B, as the risk of a side-effect is felt more strongly than the gain of pain improvement.

If both the options have side effects and the outcomes are similar, the decision becomes harder, as the comparison between the options is more complex. This difficulty occurs when the outcomes are different too. For example, if treatment option A could provide immediate pain relief, but it would only last a couple of weeks before returning and requiring treatment again, would you choose this over treatment option B, which takes longer to feel the effects from but would eventually lead to longer-lasting pain relief? Judging which outcomes are more important is another difficult step in making decisions about one’s healthcare.

3 ways practitioners can make these decisions easier:

1. Describe outcomes in familiar terms

We’ve seen that when outcomes of options are too similar, or too different, or even if there are just too many options, making a decision can prove difficult. This can be made easier if the patient has a clear idea of how they value the outcome – with the example above, if they are aware that immediate relief is more important to them than long-term relief, they’ll feel more comfortable picking treatment option A.

To help patients value the outcomes of their options, you can describe these outcomes in familiar, simple, experiential terms.

2. Describe the outcomes so that they are easy to imagine

If a patient isn’t fully aware of the probability of potential outcomes, or if they have unrealistic expectations, you can help them by describing the outcomes so that they are easy to imagine and to identify with.

3. Describe what others choose

If a patient is struggling with their decision, it can sometimes help to know what others would do. Provide them with examples of what other people with similar conditions have chosen.

How do you explain treatment outcomes to new clients?

Studies have shown that the way you explain these outcomes to patients is also important:

1. Give quantitative figures 

Put a number on how much your previous clients improved with your treatment, to provide prospective clients with more realistic expectations

2. Frame outcomes positively

If you say that a treatment option has a 95% chance of having no side effects, patients are more likely to choose it than if you present it as a 5% chance of side effects

For patients to make a decision on which treatment option to pursue – and whether to come to you as their practitioner – the outcomes must be clearly, quantitatively explained, in familiar terms. Although having numerous options will still make the process challenging, if the outcomes of each option are made clear, along with statistics on what other people have chosen, patients will find it much easier. 

Look out for more of our blog posts coming up about how to collect patient outcomes.