Thursday, October 19, 2017

How anticipating regret and quick decisions can lead to poor decision making

An essay in the New England Journal of Medicine describes the cognitive components of regret. They opine that regret always involves self-recrimination and not just disappointment over poorer than expected outcomes.

They breakdown treatment regret into different causes:

• "Process Regret" occurs when patients do not consider information about all available choices before making a decision.
• "Role Regret" arises when a patient gives in to pressure from others to change his decision.
• Active decisions can lead to more regret than passive decisions when the outcome turns out poorly.
• "Omission Bias" is the tendency to avoid active decisions, even when in our best interest.
• "Commission bias" may occur when the patient is distraught and believes that immediate decisive action is needed.
• Regret is lower when things are going poorly anyway; higher when there is a downturn of fortunes.

But there is another kind of regret that is equally counterproductive. In fact, it can lead to our making poor treatment decisions. "Anticipated regret," the fear of future self-recrimination, can cripple the patient's decision process, and ironically lead to "treatment regret" farther down the road. They offer the following advice to physicians, but I think that we as peers should heed it as well:
"We should recognize that anticipated regret can leave a patient mired in decisional conflict, unable to choose. For these patients, it is vital to bring anticipated regret to the surface by openly discussing their fears and helping them gain a clear perspective on the risks and benefits of their options in order to move forward. To mitigate the possibility of future experienced regret, we as doctors can try to reduce the emotional temperature and, when feasible, avoid having patients make their decisions while in a hot state. Except in the most urgent circumstances, physicians can set in motion a deliberate process, exploring all treatment options to avert process regret. When patients are heavily influenced by others in making a decision, we can also be alert to the possibility of role regret.
Here's their essay.

My personal belief is that regret - either of the past or anticipated - is a destructive emotion that causes distress. The best way I know to avoid it is by practicing Mindfulness to keep us in the present moment as much as possible and less in an a past that we can no longer change or a future that we cannot reliably anticipate.

I have also come to believe that no doctor ought to accept as final any prostate cancer primary treatment decision made by a low, intermediate or high risk patient within a month of receiving his diagnosis, and preferably within 3 months. The emotional temperature has too strong an effect on decision making, and time is our friend in this regard. Similarly, doctors should insist that second opinions have been acquired.

A new study by Hirasawa et al. confirms others that demonstrate that waiting 6 months or more (median 7.6 months) from biopsy to surgery among patients with localized prostate cancer (low risk to high risk) had no effect on 5 year rates of biochemical recurrence. It also had no effect on whether nerve bundles were spared, pathological upgrading or upstaging, positive margins, or positive lymph node detection. A similar study has demonstrated the same thing when the eventual treatment choice was radiation, comparing  those who waited more than 3 months with those who had treatment within 3 months,. There is no medical reason to rush this primary treatment decision.

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