Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 18, Issue 11, pp 948–959

Describing treatment effects to patients

How they are expressed makes a difference
  • Annette Moxey
  • Dianne O’Connell
  • Patricia McGettigan
  • David Henry

DOI: 10.1046/j.1525-1497.2003.20928.x

Cite this article as:
Moxey, A., O’Connell, D., McGettigan, P. et al. J GEN INTERN MED (2003) 18: 948. doi:10.1046/j.1525-1497.2003.20928.x


OBJECTIVE: To examine the impact of different presentations of equivalent information (framing) on treatment decisions faced by patients.

DESIGN: A systematic review of the published literature was conducted. English language publications allocating participants to different frames were retrieved using electronic and bibliographic searches. Two reviewers examined each article for inclusion, and assessed methodological quality. Study characteristics were tabulated and where possible, relative risks (RR; 95% confidence intervals) were calculated to estimate intervention effects.

MEASUREMENTS AND MAIN RESULTS: Thirty-seven articles, yielding 40 experimental studies, were included. Studies examined treatment (N=24), immunization (N=5), or health behavior scenarios (N=11). Overall, active treatments were preferred when outcomes were described in terms of relative rather than absolute risk reductions or number needed to treat. Surgery was preferred to other treatments when treatment efficacy was presented in a positive frame (survival) rather than a negative frame (mortality) (relative risk [RR]=1.51, 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.39 to 1.64). Framing effects were less obvious for immunization and health behavior scenarios. Those with little interest in the behavior at baseline were influenced by framing, particularly when information was presented as gains. In studies judged to be of good methodological quality and/or examining actual decisions, the framing effect, although still evident, was less convincing compared to the results of all included studies.

CONCLUSIONS: Framing effects varied with the type of scenario, responder characteristics, scenario manipulations, and study quality. When describing treatment effects to patients, expressing the information in more than one way may present a balanced view to patients and enable them to make informed decisions.

Key words

information framing informed decision making systematic review 

Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Annette Moxey
    • 1
  • Dianne O’Connell
    • 2
  • Patricia McGettigan
    • 3
  • David Henry
    • 1
  1. 1.Received from the School of Medical Practice and Population HealthThe University of NewcastleAustralia
  2. 2.Cancer Epidemiology Research Unit, Cancer Research and Registers DivisionThe Cancer Council NSWAustralia
  3. 3.the Division of MedicineMater Misericordiae HospitalAustralia
  4. 4.Clinical PharmacologyMater Misericordiae HospitalWaratahAustralia

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