Expected utility theory and risky choices with health outcomes

Med Care. 1989 Mar;27(3):273-9. doi: 10.1097/00005650-198903000-00005.


Studies of people's attitude towards risk in the health sector often involve a comparison of the desirability of alternative medical treatments. Since the outcome of a medical treatment cannot be known with certainty, patients and physicians must make a choice that involves risk. Each medical treatment may be characterized as a gamble (or risky option) with a set of outcomes and associated probabilities. Expected utility theory (EUT) is the standard method to predict people's choices under uncertainty. The author presents the results of a survey that suggests people are very risk averse towards gambles involving health-related outcomes. The survey also indicates that there is significant variability in the risk attitudes across individuals for any given gamble and that there is significant variability in the risk attitudes of a given individual across gambles. The variability of risk attitudes of a given individual suggests that risk attitudes are not absolute but are functions of the parameters in the gamble.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude to Death
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Decision Theory*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Time Factors