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Patients Underestimate Risks of Some Dental Procedures

When deciding whether to undergo a medical or dental procedure, patients tend to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the risks associated with treatment, exposing themselves to circumstances that could be detrimental to their health.

When deciding whether to undergo a medical or dental procedure, patients tend to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the risks associated with treatment, exposing themselves to circumstances that could be detrimental to their health. These results suggest clinicians should convey realistic expectations about the advantages—and health risks—that can be achieved with therapy.

In the study, “Reaping the Benefits and Avoiding the Risks: Unrealistic Optimism in the Health Domain,” published in Risk Analysis, researchers presented 376 adults ages 19 to 76 with five hypothetical, health-related scenarios in which participants were asked to imagine their clinician recommended a treatment. The scenarios included prescribed drugs, oral surgery, ear surgery, a kidney operation, or a newly developed medication; these were intended to treat an eye infection, gingival infection, ruptured eardrum, a benign growth, or a life-threatening blood disorder.

Subjects were provided with the probability of potential benefits of each procedure, as well as the risks. After reviewing this information, the participants indicated how likely they were to experience the benefits on a scale from 0% to 100%.

Yaniv Hanoch, PhD, a professor of decision science in the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth in England, working with Jonathan Rolison, PhD, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex, and Alexandra Freund, Dr. phil, professor and chair of Developmental Psychology: Adulthood at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, found that, on average, patients perceived the benefits as higher than the benefit midpoint.

“This study illustrates that patients are willing to undertake treatments that are not in their best interests; that treatment could lead to more bad than good,” notes Hanoch.

When presented with the information: “The probability of saving your tooth following periodontal surgery is 25% to 65%—that is, 25 to 65 out of 100 people who had the surgery retained their tooth,” respondents perceived the benefit as 48% higher, compared with the 45% midpoint. “People are more focused on the positive when faced with risks because their health is at stake,” says Hanoch.

For this reason, providers should make every effort to align patients with the correct information to ensure they truly understand the advantages and adverse effects of recommended treatment. In dental practice, clinicians can leverage oral health literacy and refine interpersonal communication skills, as the authors suggest a boost in clinician-patient communication is needed to help patients make well-informed decisions.

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