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24-04-2020 | Review | Uitgave 7/2020 Open Access

Quality of Life Research 7/2020

Communicating treatment risks and benefits to cancer patients: a systematic review of communication methods

Quality of Life Research > Uitgave 7/2020
L. F. van de Water, J. J. van Kleef, W. P. M. Dijksterhuis, I. Henselmans, H. G. van den Boorn, N. M. Vaarzon Morel, K. F. Schut, J. G. Daams, E. M. A. Smets, H. W. M. van Laarhoven
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The online version of this article (https://​doi.​org/​10.​1007/​s11136-020-02503-8) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
This research was presented as a poster at the ARPH conference 2019, and the ISOQOL annual meeting 2018 (awarded with the Student Poster Award 2018).

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Cancer patients are increasingly involved in decision-making processes. Hence, clinicians need to inform patients about the risks and benefits of different treatment options in order for patients to make well informed decisions. The aim of this review is to determine the effects of methods of communicating prognostic information about (1) disease progression (survival, progression, recurrence and remission), (2) side effects and complications and (3) health-related quality of life (HRQL) on cognitive, affective and behavioral outcomes in cancer patients.


A literature search was performed to select articles that were published up to  November 2019 and that examined verbal and/or visual risk communication interventions in an oncological clinical setting.


The search yielded 14,875 studies; 28 studies were ultimately included. For disease progression information, we found that framing affects treatment choice. Furthermore, limiting the amount of progression information in a graphical display could benefit patients’ understanding of risks and benefits. For prognostic information about side effects and complications, precise and defined risk information was better understood than information presented in words. When displaying HRQL data, no consensus was found on which graph type to use.


Great heterogeneity in the results and methodology and in the compared communication formats precluded us from drawing any further conclusions. Practical implications for clinicians are to consider the effects that different types of framing might have on the patient and to not rely exclusively on words to describe risks, but rather include at least some form of numbers or visualization.

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