Gathering information and making a decision

How can you weigh the pros and cons of different diagnostic tests and treatment options in order to make the right decision for you? What information do you need, where can you find it and who can help you?

If you're ill or have a health problem, it is often possible to choose between different treatments. This can be easy: In many cases there will be a treatment that is clearly right for you – or none of the options would be worth the trouble or justify the possible side effects.

Yet sometimes you will have to compare different diagnostic tests and treatments and carefully consider their possible benefits and harms. The decision can be difficult, especially if it's about a severe or chronic condition. You'll usually need

  • reliable information about the various options, and
  • a doctor to help you consider the information and decide which steps to take next.

How can I prepare for a decision?

In this section, we have put together some questions that can be useful when making a decision. They aim to help you find all the necessary information. The next step will then be about weighing the pros and cons and assessing the information you have gathered to arrive at a decision. This is where our decision aid can be helpful.

We also describe how we take these issues into account on our website InformedHealth.org. And last but not least you will find a list of self-help groups and information centers in Germany. You can move through the different steps using the menu on the right.

How can I find useful information?

Your doctor will usually be the first person you go to if you have questions about medical issues. But many people look for information on their own and often use the internet, even though it's especially difficult to know which websites are trustworthy. The following questions can act as a useful guide:

  • Who produced the information?
  • How old is the information?
  • What sources were used?
  • Is the purpose of the information to sell something?
  • Does it make unrealistic claims, e.g. promise a cure?

Seals such as HONcode and afgis can serve as a rough guide to the reliability of a website. These seals make it easier to find certain information about the publisher of a website. But they do not guarantee that the health information provided is correct or complete.

On informedhealth.org you will find the HONcode seal on the bottom right in the footer. The contents of our website are produced in accordance with the methods of evidence-based medicine. They are based on the best that was available at the time of publication. All of the articles are checked on a regular basis and updated if necessary.

Along with other providers of health information in Germany, we are members of the "Gute Praxis Gesundheitsinformation" (Good practice guidelines for health information) group.

Deciding together - but how?

In order to make the right treatment decision for you, you and your doctor need to work together. It's called "shared decision-making" when

  • the doctor and patient share information on the possible diagnostic tests and treatment options,
  • they decide together what is possible, what is worth trying, and what is best suited to the patient, and
  • both agree on the decision.

When preparing to make a decision about a medical intervention, it may be helpful to find answers to the following questions:

  • What is known about the condition and its possible consequences?
  • What is the natural course of the condition?
  • What are the diagnostic and treatment options, and what possible benefits and risks do they have?
  • How likely are the various interventions and treatments to help? How likely are the side effects?
  • What wishes and needs will play a role? And what fears need to be taken into account?

Once these aspects have been considered, the best course of action can be discussed.

What are decision aids?

Decision aids are designed to help patients gather important information in order to make a decision and consider various aspects relevant to the decision. These aids are available in different formats, including online forms and paper leaflets.

Depending on the topic, decision aids may contain information on the course of the disease with or without treatment, the risk of complications, and alternative treatment options. Using a decision aid can also help you find out which information you still need and make it easier for you to prepare for a talk with your doctor.

The information in evidence-based decision aids is supported by scientific proof. Before they are published, the decision aids are also tested by people who have the condition to check whether they are truly helpful. There are general-purpose decision aids that can be used for a variety of situations, and specific-purpose decision aids that deal with particular treatments, tests and vaccinations.

German Network for Evidence-based medicine. Gute Praxis Gesundheitsinformation. Berlin: 2015.

Lausen B, Potapov S, Prokosch HU. Gesundheitsbezogene Internetnutzung in Deutschland 2007. GMS Med Inform Biom Epidemiol 2008;4(2):Doc06.

Lenz M, Buhse S, Kasper J, Kupfer R, Richter T, Mühlhauser I: Entscheidungshilfen für Patienten. Deutsches Ärzteblatt 2012; 109: 401–408.

Krones T, Richter G. Die Arzt-Patient-Beziehung. In: Schulz S., Steigleder K., Fangerau H. Paul NW (eds.). Geschichte, Theorie und Ethik der Medizin. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp; 2012.

Sänger S, Diercks M-L. Kritische Bewertung von Gesundheitsinformationen für medizinische Laien. In: Kunz R, Ollenschläger G, Raspe H, Jonitz G, Donner-Banzhoff N (eds.). Lehrbuch evidenzbasierte Medizin in Klinik und Praxis. Cologne: Deutscher Ärzte-Verlag; 2007.

Stacey D, Légaré F, Col NF, Bennett CL, Barry MJ, Eden KB et al. Decision aids for people facing health treatment or screening decisions. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2014; (1): CD001431.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

Comment on this page

What would you like to share with us?

We welcome any feedback and ideas. We will review, but not publish, your ratings and comments. Your information will of course be treated confidentially. Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Updated on September 8, 2016
Next planned update: 2021

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

How we keep you informed

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter or newsfeed. You can find all of our films online on YouTube.