Absolutely relative: how research results are summarized can affect treatment decisions

Am J Med. 1992 Feb;92(2):121-4. doi: 10.1016/0002-9343(92)90100-p.


Purpose: To determine whether alternative methods of presenting a contrast between the same two quantities in descriptions of research results could lead to different treatment decisions by physicians.

Subjects and methods: We conducted a survey of practicing physicians and of faculty and fellows in training programs in clinical epidemiology and social science research methods. Each questionnaire presented results from a published study of either hypertension or hypercholesterolemia in two different ways: once as the relative change in the outcome rate and once as the absolute change in the outcome rate. We asked respondents to read each summary and indicate how the information contained in the summary would influence decisions about treatment.

Results: Of the 235 physicians who completed the questionnaire, 108 (46%) gave different responses to the same results presented in different ways. Of these, 97 (89.8%) indicated a stronger inclination to treat patients after reading of the relative change in the outcome rate (p less than 0.0001).

Conclusion: The manner of presentation of results can influence physicians' judgments about the treatment of patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Abstracting and Indexing / methods*
  • Decision Making*
  • Humans
  • Hypercholesterolemia / therapy
  • Hypertension / therapy
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Research Design / statistics & numerical data*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Therapeutics / methods*
  • Treatment Outcome