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Doctor’s views on disclosing or withholding information on low risks of complication
  1. G G Palmboom1,
  2. D L Willems1,
  3. N B A T Janssen2,
  4. J C J M de Haes2
  1. 1Department of General Practice, Academic Medical Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  2. 2Department of Medical Psychology, Academic Medical Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to:
 D L Willems
 Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam, J2 119, PO Box 22700, 1100 DE Amsterdam, The Netherlands;d.l.willems{at}


Background: More and more quantitative information is becoming available about the risks of complications arising from medical treatment. In everyday practice, this raises the question whether each and every risk, however low, should be disclosed to patients. What could be good reasons for doing or not doing so? This will increasingly become a dilemma for practitioners.

Objective: To report doctors’ views on whether to disclose or withhold information on low risks of complications.

Methods: In a qualitative study design, 37 respondents (gastroenterologists and gynaecologists or obstetricians) were included. Focus group interviews were held with 22 respondents and individual in-depth interviews with 15.

Results: Doctors have doubts about disclosing or withholding information on complication risk, especially in a risk range of 1 in 200 to 1 in 10 000. Their considerations on whether to disclose or to withhold information depend on a complicated mix of patient and doctor-associated reasons; on medical and personal considerations; and on the kind and purpose of intervention.

Discussion: Even though the degree of a risk is important in a doctor’s considerations, the severity of the possible complications and patients’ wishes and competencies have an important role as well. Respondents said that low risks should always be communicated when there are alternatives for the intervention or when the patient may prevent or mitigate the risk. When the appropriateness of disclosing risks is doubtful, doctors should always tell their patients that no intervention is without risk, give them the opportunity to gather all the information they need or want, and enable them to detect a complication at an early stage.

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  • Funding: Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

  • Competing interests: None.

  • Equipment: MAXqda.

  • Ethical approval: Research ethics committee approval to conduct this study was not demanded because it did not fall within the remit of the Dutch Medical Research Involving Human Subjects Act (WMO).19

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