A Simple Approach to Shared Decision Making in Cancer Screening


When screening decisions aren't clear, this process can help you help your patients.

Fam Pract Manag. 2017 May-June;24(3):5-10.

Author disclosures: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed.

Consider the following patient scenarios:

1. Nancy, a longtime patient of yours, comes to your clinic for a physical. While you are catching up with her, she tells you that the mom of one of her son's classmates was just diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 41. Nancy is 45 years old and is now concerned that she has never had a mammogram.

2. Shari is a 65-year-old Caucasian woman with no chronic medical problems. You don't see her very often because she doesn't like to visit the doctor, but she's here for a physical. She is a current smoker with a 50 pack-year history of smoking. You see a note from your nurse saying that Shari would qualify for lung cancer screening.

3. Bob is a 58-year-old African American man who presents for a physical with no complaints. He has well-controlled hypertension and hyperlipidemia. He had a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test in the past that was in the normal range, and his family history is negative for prostate cancer. His wife suggested he should get screened again based on an article she read.

In cancer screening discussions such as these, where patients may have more than one medically reasonable option, shared decision making can be a useful tool for helping patients decide what to do. This article presents “Three models of shared decision-making” and “Three case studies” showing how to use the models in a busy primary care practice.

What is shared decision making, and why do it?

Shared decision making is simply a process that aids a physician and patient in selecting the optimal test or treatment for the patient. It involves a bidirectional flow of information. (See “Shared decision making vs. usual care.”) The physician provides information about the disease, the screening service, and risks and benefits; the patient provides his or her thoughts and values; and together they make a decision. Shared decision making is distinct from informed decision making, where the physician provides information to the patient and then the patient makes the decision.

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Although shared decision making is not appropriate in clinical scenarios where the medical treatment is clear, such as antibiotics for meningitis or anticoagulation for a pulmonary embolus, it proves beneficial in situations where more than one treatment or screening decision is valid. With cancer screening, there are many options for primary care patients and good evidence that early detection can lead to decreased mortality and morbidity. But most of the screening methods also have possible harmful effects including over-diagnosis or

About the Authors

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Dr. Schrager is a professor in the University of Wisconsin (UW) Department of Family Medicine and Community Health in Madison, Wis....

Gina Phillips is a second-year medical student at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

Dr. Burnside is a faculty member in the UW Department of Radiology.

Author disclosures: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed.



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