How to Make an Objective Medical Treatment Decision

When Making Treatment Decisions Seems Too Difficult

A doctor talks with a patient.
A doctor talks with a patient. Caiaimage/Rafal Rodzoch/Getty Images

Faced with tough choices about treatments or other aspects of our medical care or medical care for a loved one, it's difficult to keep emotions out of the decision-making process. Upset about the diagnosis and fearful that we'll make the wrong choice, the possibility of choosing the wrong option can seem overwhelming.

Making an Objective Medical Decision

Unless you are in an emergency situation, it's likely you can take some time to research options before you make your final decision.

Even if your doctor is pressuring you for an immediate decision, ask whether there are any risks in taking some time to think it over.

While objectivity in this process may seem impossible, following these steps can help.

1. List All Your Treatment Options

Begin by making a list of all your options, which may include surgery, drugs, physical therapies, and even complementary or alternative therapies. Your doctor will have provided one or more possibilities. You might even consider asking other patients with the same diagnosis what their choices were.

Example: Let's use a case about chronic migraines as an example. Meet Sarah. Sarah has suffered from migraine headaches for many years. Her doctor has prescribed a drug for those headaches, and she has used the drug on a number of occasions, finding some relief.

But Sarah is not a fan of drugs in general, and objects to the thought of using chemicals to control her pain.

Through her research, she learned that some forms of migraines may be relieved by acupuncture. And a friend who also suffers from migraines told Sarah about the relief she gets by visiting her chiropractor.

Like Sarah, you'll want to uncover all the possibilities, even though your doctor may not have mentioned them in your initial conversation.

2. Determine Pros and Cons for Each Medical Treatment Option

Once you have a master list of all the possibilities, begin listing the pros and cons for each option. Include the duration of the treatment, how long recovery might take, the financial cost including insurance coverage, short and long-term side effects, possible outcomes, and the probability of success. Each of these considerations might end up as either a pro or con.

Include aspects that are less quantifiable, too, such as the amount of pain the treatment might cause, your fear level, how far from home you need to go for treatment, or which treatment your provider prefers for you.

If you’re not sure whether an aspect is a pro or con, ask your doctor or other medical staff in her office for input. Get additional information from research, by talking to other patients about their experiences, or from your family. Don’t discount intuition. You may "know" one treatment is a better choice than another for you. Just be careful not to confuse your intuition with wishful thinking.

Remember that "wait and see" may be an option for you: You'll want to know what the ramifications are if you choose no immediate treatment. Similar to "wait and see" is the conscious decision not to be treated at all. The right to refuse medical treatment is one granted to most, but not all those who need medical treatment.

Example: In Sarah's case, she was able to determine those pros and cons fairly easily. Included were the facts that her insurance would not cover the acupuncture her brother is a chiropractor.

3. Narrow Down Your Possible Treatment Choices

With your list of pros and cons in front of you, narrow down your choices.

For each final possibility, ask yourself: What is the worst thing that can happen if I undergo this treatment? And if the worst happens, can I live with it?

Eliminate the options that provide side effects or outcomes you find unacceptable. Then make a tentative decision.

Share this preliminary decision with your doctor and your family. Help them understand your decision-making process, and see if they concur.

You may find not everyone, including your doctor, will agree with you. Be sure you've shared your pros and cons with them, and talk it through. Of course, the final decision is still yours to make.

4. Make Your Final Treatment Decision

Once you've made your decision, it's important to follow through and adhere to that decision. If you run into problems and regret your choice or want to try something different, you can return to your medical professional and begin the decision-making process again.

Example: Sarah ultimately chose acupuncture as her first choice. As mentioned previously, she had already tried the drugs and didn't like how she felt once they wore off. Her friend had raved about the acupuncture, and Sarah learned it was more affordable than she realized. Also, as much as she loved her brother, she didn't want to involve him unless she had to. She knew, too, that she could try chiropractic care later.

Sarah shared her final decision with her doctor, and began working with the acupuncturist.

What Happens If You Don't Make a Decision?

Making no decision is just the same as making a decision -- you've chosen the option of no treatment. It means you are defaulting to the status quo. It also may mean you're choosing "wait and see" as opposed to an immediate treatment. Whether you decide against having treatment, or whether you make no decision and do nothing, you will have to live with whatever your medical problem is.

Making no decision, or choosing no treatment may have one of three outcomes. Depending on the diagnosis, of course, some patients find their bodies heal on their own. For some, their medical problem will get worse. And for others, it means that they will eventually die.

If you're really stuck and need extra help making your decision, go in search of a shared decision making expert to help you.

Knowledge is power. The more knowledge you gain, the more likely you will feel confident about your choices. An empowered patient stays as objective as possible through the decision-making process, while relying on those professionals with the needed information in order to make the right decisions for herself.

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