Better Price/Best Price street signs According to a new study, “physicians do only slightlybetter than non-physicians-–but not by much and not always.”(Image: Shutterstock)

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It was a common theory at the beginning of this age ofinformation: just give people the facts, and they'll make the rightchoice.

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We all know how that works out, at least sometimes. And a newstudy suggests that even with physicians, who should know moreabout health care than the vast majority of the population, betterinformation doesn't always lead to better decisions.

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The study, from the National Bureau of Economic Research,compared physicians to patients when it comes to making personalhealth decisions. The study noted that with many health improvementefforts, patient education is considered a decisive factor.

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Related: Unraveling the complexity of our health carebilling system

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“There is a widespread belief in health care that the deficiencyin information and medical knowledge among consumers is the keybarrier to achieving high-quality health outcomes and lower costsof care,” the authors write. “An enormous number of health policiesfollow from this assumption, including efforts to educate patientsabout health, both at a population level through large-scale publichealth campaigns (e.g., campaigns to encourage exercise andhealthier diets) and at an individual level through provider-ledpatient education (e.g., education of patients about theinappropriateness of antibiotics for the common cold, theimportance of vaccination, etc.).”

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Doctor knows best?

The researchers started with the theory that physicians wouldhave much more access to, and familiarity with, high-qualityinformation when it comes to health care. The study aimed to testthe upper boundaries of how information plays a role in health carechoices, the researchers said, since most members of the generalpublic were not likely to be better informed than physicians.

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Using a military database that covers active service members;their families; and retirees; and was able to identify patients whowere also physicians, the study looked at ten years of data. Theresearchers assessed whether patients received “high-value” or“low-value” services.

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“An example of low-value care is a chest X-ray before eyesurgery, a very low risk procedure for which pre-operativediagnostic testing is not recommended,” the study said. “An exampleof high-value care would be statin therapy for patients withcardiovascular disease.”

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Mixed results

The researchers say that in many cases, physicians did not makesignificantly different choices than less-educated patients.

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“Our results suggest that physicians do only slightly betterthan non-physicians—but not by much and not always,” the studysaid. “Across most of our low-value settings, physicians receiveless low-value care than do non-physicians, but the differences aremodest.”

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The study said it's likely that factors other than informationmay play a large role in health care decision-making. For example,they suggest that high-information physicians make low-valuechoices in some cases because of time pressures. In addition, thestudy suggests that physician patients, just like non-physicianpatients, seem more likely to follow the recommendation of theirhealth care provider, even when that recommendation falls into thelow-value category.

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The study is a working paper that has not yet beenpeer-reviewed; and while the authors acknowledge that theirfindings have some limitations, they say that the report suggeststhere may be limits on the benefits of patient education.

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“Our results consistently suggest that, at most, superiorpatient knowledge is associated with only modest improvements inthe quality of care selected through medical encounters,” the studyconcludes.

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