Patients Underestimate Risks and Overestimate Benefits of Treatment

Dentistry Today


Patients underestimate the risks and overestimate the benefits of dental surgery and other medical procedures, according to researchers at the University of Plymouth, University of Essex, and University of Zurich.

In several hypothetical scenarios, 376 adults were asked to imagine that their doctor had recommended a treatment—a drug, dental surgery, ear surgery, kidney operation, or a newly developed medication—to treat an eye infection, gum infection, hole in their eardrum, benign growth, or a life-threatening disorder, respectively. 

In each scenario, the subjects were given precise information about the probability of success, such as saving a tooth, or the probability of the risks, such as liver damage. The treatments and side effects were taken from medical studies, but the probabilities of their happening were devised by the study authors for the research only.

The subjects then were asked to indicate how likely they believed they would experience one of the benefits or risks on a scale of 0% to 100%. On average, they perceived the benefit as higher than the benefit midpoint. In the case of the tooth, the perceived likelihood of benefit was 48%, compared to the midpoint of 45%.

The perceived risk of the side effects—in the case of the dental procedure, a possible gum infection—was perceived to be 46%, compared to the risk midpoint or average of 50%. The biggest difference was in a kidney operation for a benign growth, with the perceived risk of paralysis at 43% was much lower than the actual risk of 53%.

“By presenting participants with a wide range of medical scenarios, including minor and serious ones as well as physical, psychological, and dental, our findings lend support to a growing body of evidence regarding unrealistic optimism,” said lead author Yaniv Hanoch, PhD, professor of decision science at the University of Plymouth.

“From an applied perspective, these results suggest that clinicians may need to ensure that patients do not underestimate risks of medical interventions and that they convey realistic expectations about the benefits that can be obtained with certain procedures,” said Hanoch. 

“It would be good to carry out further studies on a larger population and also explore if and how clinicians can help manage expectations,” Hanoch said.

The study, “Reaping the Benefits and Avoiding the Risks: Unrealistic Optimism in the Health Domain,” was published by Risk Analysis.

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