A new survey in the Archives of Internal Medicine has found some potentially disturbing results. When faced with certain hypothetical treatment scenarios, doctors were more likely to recommend treatments with higher risk of death, but less severe side-affects, when told to imagine themselves as the patient.
The survey sent two sets of questions to doctors around the United States, one concerning a hypothetical survey for colon cancer, and one involving treatment for bird flu. Doctors were asked to either assume that they were the patient, or to imagine that they were giving advice to patients.
“I don’t think any patient would expect that [the results],” Peter Ubel, who led the research at Duke University, told Reuters. “If they found out, they would raise a lot of questions.”
Of the 242 doctors who answered the colon cancer questionnaire, 38 percent recommended the high-risk surgery for themselves, but only a quarter recommended it for their patients. For the bird flu treatment, 63 percent recommended the higher risk treatment, compared to 49 percent for their patients, of 1,600 surveyed.
“It has nothing to do with moral,” said Ubel. “It has everything to do with human nature. The doctors don’t even know they are behaving this way.”
Alan Schwartz, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, was not surprised by the results of the study.
“There is a problem whenever someone is trying to make a decision for someone else,” he said. “Physicians should be attuned to their patients’ values.”