Purpose: When making medical decisions, people often care not only about what happens but also about whether the outcome was a result of actions voluntarily taken or a result of inaction. This study assessed the proportion of people choosing nonoptimal treatments (treatments which reduced survival chances) when presented with hypothetical cancer scenarios which varied by outcome cause.
Methods: A randomized survey experiment tested preferences for curing an existent cancer with 2 possible treatments (medication or surgery) and 2 effects of treatment (beneficial or harmful). Participants were 112 prospective jurors in the Philadelphia County Courthouse and 218 visitors to the Detroit-Wayne County Metropolitan Airport.
Results: When treatment was beneficial, 27% of participants rejected medication, whereas only 10% rejected surgery with identical outcomes ( 2 = 5.87, P < 0.02). When treatment was harmful, participants offered surgery were significantly more inclined to take action (65% v. 38%, chi(2) = 11.40, P = 0.001), even though doing so reduced overall survival chances.
Conclusions: Faced with hypothetical cancer diagnoses, many people say they would pursue treatment even if doing so would increase their chance of death. This tendency toward active treatment is notably stronger when the treatment offered is surgery instead of medication. Our study suggests that few people can imagine standing by and doing nothing after being diagnosed with cancer, and it should serve to remind clinicians that, for many patients, the best treatment alternative may not only depend on the medical outcomes they can expect to experience but also on whether those outcomes are achieved actively or passively.