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Fri, Mar 24 at 9:10am CDT · Leave a Reply

Shared decision making in immigrant patients

By Victor M. Montori @manosin

Authors: Claudia C. Dobler, Gabriela Spencer-Bonilla, Michael R. Gionfriddo, Juan Pablo Brito

Shared decision making (SDM) has been widely advocated [1] and called the pinnacle of patient-centered care [2]. Translating this ideal into reality has proven challenging [3]. Several papers have identified barriers to the translation of SDM into practice [4-6]. A number of challenges arise in the context of intercultural and inter-linguistic SDM, which may be particularly pertinent to immigrant populations. Some of the challenges of SDM in an intercultural context have been summarized in a paper by Suurmond et al. [7]. These challenges include 1) language barriers, need for interpreters, 2) differences in health beliefs and concepts of illness between the patient and clinician, 3) differences in role expectations, e.g. an apparent preference for a paternalistic approach or desire for family-centered model of decision making, 4) consultation situation (e.g. time constraint and lack of culturally adapted patient information), and 5) low health literacy. Recently, our SDM Working group at Mayo discussed this article with the lens of applying the lessons to the development of an SDM tool for immigrant patients discussing preventive tuberculosis treatment with their clinicians.

A core component of SDM is communication. When clinicians and patients have to communicate through an interpreter, the work of SDM is complicated by: incorporating a third party into a sometimes intimate conversation, disruption of typical communication flow, lengthening of the medical encounter, and the telephone effect when interpreters engage in interpretation and curation of language rather than pure translation.  Interpreters, whether professional or lay, may make judgments about which information is important to convey to patients (and back to the clinician) and which information is not. Little is known about how this form of triadic communication affects the process of SDM and the extent to which interpreters’ knowledge, attitudes and beliefs affect SDM and the use of SDM tools in clinical encounters.  A recently published study that analyzed three consultations with an interpreter in which an Option Grid for osteoarthritis was used, found that discussions of treatment options were mainly between clinician and interpreter [8]. Patients had only minimal participation in the discussion with an average of four words articulated when they had an opportunity to speak, indicating that patients did not have a significant role in discussing treatment options.

In addition to differences in language, patients may have illness narratives [9] and health literacy which do not align with those of their clinicians. Providing care is also complicated by the fact that immigrants, especially those newly arrived in the destination country and with limited socio-economic resources, can have pressing material needs and concerns like providing for the daily needs of their families. A holistic approach to improving health and well-being must also take into account each patient’s context in the decision making process.

A single solution will not address all of these barriers, and more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of available interventions. For conversations that require interpreters, more research is needed around the dynamics of these triadic conversations as well as strategies for facilitating SDM in this context. For example, future research in this area could evaluate the effect of academic detailing (on SDM and the use of encounter decision aids), or training of interpreters on using SDM during the clinical encounter. Testing whether this could be achieved with interpreters working over the phone has the potential for widespread implementation.  Research is also required to find models of SDM that do not only facilitate collaborative deliberation between two individuals (the patient and the clinician), but facilitate the inclusion of family members and carers into the decision making process. To adapt to cultural differences, group education classes or shared visits in addition to individual encounters may help create a cohesive narrative between patients and clinicians. This strategy is currently being implemented by one of our collaborators in China. As many cultures have a family-centered model of decision making, patients’ families could be integrated into these group classes as well.

At times, SDM conversations will need to incorporate existential or practical needs that extend beyond a specific medical decision. Thus, components  of the ICAN tool, which can help prompt conversation about the patient’s context and situation including goals, priorities, capacity, and burden [10], may be a useful addition to a SDM intervention in this disease context.

While ongoing refugee crises throughout the world have highlighted the limitations of current approaches to SDM, these challenges exist to varying degrees in all encounters; we all have our own microcultures and idiosyncrasies.  Discovering how to communicate with one another in an effective, respectful, compassionate, and empathic manner is essential for the realization of the promises of patient-centered care.

We welcome the opportunity for continued conversations and collaborations. Please share your comments, stories and experiences in this area. Contact us at


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