A qualitative exploration of clinicians' strategies to communicate risks to patients in the complex reality of clinical practice

PLoS One. 2020 Aug 13;15(8):e0236751. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0236751. eCollection 2020.


Background: Risk communication, situated in the model of shared decision making (SDM), is an essential element in daily clinical practice. The scientific literature makes a number of generic recommendations. Yet the application of risk communication remains a challenge in patient-clinician encounters. How clinicians actually communicate risk during consultations is not well understood. We aimed to explore the risk communication strategies used by clinicians and extract narratives and visualizations of those strategies to help inform medical education.

Methods: In this qualitative descriptive study, we interviewed fifteen purposely sampled clinicians from several medical disciplines, who were familiar with the concept of SDM. Deductive and inductive content analysis was used during an iterative data collection and analyses process.

Results: Our study identified various strategies reported to be used by clinicians to address the complexities of risk communication such as dealing with uncertainty. These included verbal, numerical and visual risk communication and framing. Clinicians were familiar with recommended risk formats such as natural frequencies and population pictograms. However, it became clear that clinicians' expertise and communication goals also play an important role in the risk talk. Clinicians try to lay a foundation for balanced decision-making and to incorporate patient preferences while faced with several challenges such as the dilemma of raising awareness but triggering anxiety or fan fear in patients. Consequently, they also use communication goals such as influencing mindset and reassuring patients. Additionally, clinicians frequently have to account for the illusion of certainty in the risk talk.

Conclusion: Risk communication is a multi-faceted construct that cannot be dealt with in isolation from the clinical context. For future research we recommend considering a more practical framework within the clinical setting and to take a goal-directed approach into account when investigating and teaching the topic. The patient perspective should also be addressed in further research.

Grant support

The author(s) received no specific funding for this work.