An appropriate verbal probability lexicon for communicating surgical risks is unlikely to exist

Adam J.L. Harris, Tracy Tran, Sarah Jenkins, Adelia Su, Lexi He, Yifei Zhu, Simon Gane

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Effective risk communication about medical procedures is critical to ethical shared decision-making. Here, we explore the potential for development of an evidence-based lexicon for verbal communication of surgical risk. We found that Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) surgeons expressed a preference for communicating such risks using verbal probability expressions (VPEs; e.g., ‘high risk’). However, there was considerable heterogeneity in the expressions they reported using (Study 1). Study 2 compared ENT surgeons’ and laypeople’s (i.e., potential patients) interpretations of the ten most frequent VPEs listed in Study 1. Whilst both groups displayed considerable variability in interpretations, lay participants demonstrated more, as well as providing systematically higher interpretations than those of surgeons. Study 3 found that lay participants were typically unable to provide unique VPEs to differentiate between the range of (low) probabilities required. Taken together, these results add to arguments that reliance on VPEs for surgical risk communication is ill-advised. Not only are there systematic interpretational differences between surgeons and potential patients, but the coarse granularity of VPEs raises severe challenges for developing an appropriate evidence-based lexicon for surgical risk communication. We caution against the use of VPEs in any risk context characterised by low, but very different, probabilities.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
Early online date28 Jul 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 28 Jul 2022

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