Physician as partner or salesman? Shared decision-making in real-time encounters

Soc Sci Med. 2009 Jul;69(1):1-8. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2009.04.030. Epub 2009 May 20.


The results of recent research have led to the increased advocacy of shared decision-making regarding medical treatment. Nonetheless, only a limited number of studies have focused on the process of decision-making in real-time encounters. The present paper aims to document and analyze this process. Specifically, we assess whether these decisions are the result of partnership or of persuasive tactics based on power and hierarchical relationships. We will describe and analyze different strategies used by pediatric gastroenterologists in breaking bad news encounters, as well as their consequences. The analysis is based on a multi-method, multi-participant phenomenological study on breaking bad news to adolescents and their families regarding a chronic illness. It included 17 units of analysis (actual encounters and 52 interviews with physicians, parents and adolescents). Data were collected from three hospitals in Northern Israel using observations and audiotapes of diagnosis disclosure encounters and audio-taped interviews with all participants. The analysis identified eight different presentation tactics used in actual encounters during which physicians made various use of language, syntax and different sources of power to persuade patients to agree with their preferred treatment choice. The tactics included various ways of presenting the illness, treatment and side effects; providing examples from other success or failure stories; sharing the decision only concerning technicalities; and using plurals and authority. The findings suggest that shared decision-making may be advocated as a philosophical tenet or a value, but it is not necessarily implemented in actual communication with patients. Rather, treatment decisions tend to be unilaterally made, and a variety of persuasive approaches are used to ensure agreement with the physician's recommendation. The discussion is focused on the complexity of sharing a decision, especially in the initial bad news encounter; and the potentially harmful implications on building a trusting relationship between the physician and the family when a decision is not shared.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Chronic Disease
  • Decision Making*
  • Delivery of Health Care
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Israel
  • Middle Aged
  • Observation
  • Patient Participation*
  • Persuasive Communication*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Truth Disclosure