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Effective Health Care Program

Decision Aids for Cancer Screening and Treatment

Systematic Review Archived

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Archived: This report is greater than 3 years old. Findings may be used for research purposes, but should not be considered current.

Structured Abstract


Many health decisions about screening and treatment for cancers involve uncertainty or tradeoffs between the expected benefits and harms. Patient decision aids have been developed to help health care consumers and their providers identify the available alternatives and choose the one that aligns with their values. It is unclear whether the effectiveness of decision aids for decisions related to cancers differs by people's average risk of cancer or by the content and format of the decision aid.


We sought to appraise and synthesize the evidence assessing the effectiveness of decision aids targeting health care consumers who face decisions about cancer screening or prevention, or early cancer treatment (Key Question 1), particularly with regard to decision aid or patient characteristics that might function as effect modifiers. We also reviewed interventions targeting providers for promotion of shared decision making using decision aids (Key Question 2).

Data sources

We searched MEDLINE®, Embase®, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), PsycINFO®, and the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL®) from inception to the end of June 2014.

Review methods

For Key Question 1, we included randomized controlled trials comparing decision aid interventions among themselves or with a control. We included trials of previously developed decision aids that were delivered at the point of the actual decision. We predefined three population groups of interest based on risk or presence of cancer (average cancer risk, high cancer risk, early cancer). The assessed outcomes pertained to measurements of decisional quality and cognition (e.g., knowledge scores), attributes of the decision-making process (e.g., Decisional Conflict Scale), emotion and quality of life (e.g., decisional regret), and process and system-level attributes. We assessed for effect modification by population group, by the delivery format or content of the decision aid or other attributes, or by methodological characteristics of the studies. For Key Question 2, we included studies of any intervention to promote patient decision aid use, regardless of study design and outcomes assessed.


Of the 16,669 screened citations, 87 publications were eligible, corresponding to 83 (68 trials; 25,337 participants) and 5 reports for Key Questions 1 and 2, respectively. Regarding the evolution of the decision aid format and content over time, more recent trials increasingly studied decision aids that were more practical to deliver (e.g., over the Internet or without human mediation) and more often clarified preferences explicitly. Overall, participants using decision aids had higher knowledge scores compared with those not using decision aids (standardized mean difference, 0.23; 95% credible interval [CrI], 0.09 to 0.35; 42 comparison strata with 12,484 participants). Compared with not using decision aids, using decision aids resulted in slightly lower decisional conflict scores (weighted mean difference of -5.3 units [CrI, -8.9 to -1.8] on the 0-100 Decisional Conflict Scale; 28 comparison strata; 7,923 participants). There was no difference in State-Trait Anxiety Inventory scores (weighted mean difference = 0.1; 95% CrI, -1.0 to 0.7 on a 20-80 scale; 16 comparison strata; 2,958 participants). Qualitative synthesis suggested that patients using decision aids are more likely to make informed decisions and have accurate risk perceptions; further, they may make choices that best agree with their values and may be less likely to remain undecided. Because there was insufficient, sparse, or no information about effects of decision aids on patient-provider communication, patient satisfaction with decision-making process, resource use, consultation length, costs, or litigation rates, a quantitative synthesis was not done. There was no evidence for effect modification by population group, by the delivery format or content of the decision aid or other attributes, or by methodological characteristics of the studies. Data on Key Question 2 were very limited.


Cancer-related decision aids have evolved over time, and there is considerable diversity in both format and available evidence. We found strong evidence that cancer-related decision aids increase knowledge without adverse impact on decisional conflict or anxiety. We found moderate- or low-strength evidence that patients using decision aids are more likely to make informed decisions, have accurate risk perceptions, make choices that best agree with their values, and not remain undecided.

This review adds to the literature that the effectiveness of cancer-related decision aids does not appear to be modified by specific attributes of decision aid delivery format, content, or other characteristics of their development and implementation. Very limited information was available on other outcomes or on the effectiveness of interventions that target providers to promote shared decision making by means of decision aids.