Evidence-based risk communication: a systematic review

Ann Intern Med. 2014 Aug 19;161(4):270-80. doi: 10.7326/M14-0295.


Background: Effective communication of risks and benefits to patients is critical for shared decision making.

Purpose: To review the comparative effectiveness of methods of communicating probabilistic information to patients that maximize their cognitive and behavioral outcomes.

Data sources: PubMed (1966 to March 2014) and CINAHL, EMBASE, and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (1966 to December 2011) using several keywords and structured terms.

Study selection: Prospective or cross-sectional studies that recruited patients or healthy volunteers and compared any method of communicating probabilistic information with another method.

Data extraction: Two independent reviewers extracted study characteristics and assessed risk of bias.

Data synthesis: Eighty-four articles, representing 91 unique studies, evaluated various methods of numerical and visual risk display across several risk scenarios and with diverse outcome measures. Studies showed that visual aids (icon arrays and bar graphs) improved patients' understanding and satisfaction. Presentations including absolute risk reductions were better than those including relative risk reductions for maximizing accuracy and seemed less likely than presentations with relative risk reductions to influence decisions to accept therapy. The presentation of numbers needed to treat reduced understanding. Comparative effects of presentations of frequencies (such as 1 in 5) versus event rates (percentages, such as 20%) were inconclusive.

Limitation: Most studies were small and highly variable in terms of setting, context, and methods of administering interventions.

Conclusion: Visual aids and absolute risk formats can improve patients' understanding of probabilistic information, whereas numbers needed to treat can lessen their understanding. Due to study heterogeneity, the superiority of any single method for conveying probabilistic information is not established, but there are several good options to help clinicians communicate with patients.

Primary funding source: None.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Comparative Effectiveness Research
  • Decision Making*
  • Humans
  • Patient Education as Topic*
  • Patient Participation*
  • Patient Satisfaction
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Probability
  • Risk Assessment / methods*