Personalised risk communication for informed decision making about taking screening tests

Screening is generally seen as an effective and safe method to prevent diseases, but there are risks and disadvantages with the procedures involved. It is important for the person undergoing screening to know about the risks of the disease and also how this is relevant to him or her. Such information would help people to make an informed choice about taking up a screening procedure.

In this review we looked at studies that provided personalised risk information for each participant, so that he or she could make a decision about whether to undergo screening, based on their personal risk profile. We found 41 studies with 28,700 participants that provided such personalised risk information to the participants. We integrated the results of all these studies and found that when such a risk profile was included in the intervention, the participants made more informed decisions about screening, compared to people who were provided with more general risk information. Overall 45.2% (592/1309) of participants who received personalised risk information made informed choices as compared to 20.2% (229/1135) of participants who received generic risk information.

We also found that these interventions seemed to increase knowledge and may increase accuracy of risk perception in the trial participants. However they did not significantly affect participants' anxiety. The results also indicated that providing people with personalised risks of the disease resulted in a small increase in the number of people who undertook the screening procedure. The results from this review are dominated by studies screening for breast cancer and colorectal cancer. Caution is required in applying these results to other types of screening.

Authors' conclusions: 

There is strong evidence from three trials that personalised risk estimates incorporated within communication interventions for screening programmes enhance informed choices. However the evidence for increasing the uptake of such screening tests with similar interventions is weak, and it is not clear if this increase is associated with informed choices. Studies included a diverse range of screening programmes. Therefore, data from this review do not allow us to draw conclusions about the best interventions to deliver personalised risk communication for enhancing informed decisions. The results are dominated by findings from the topic area of mammography and colorectal cancer. Caution is therefore required in generalising from these results, and particularly for clinical topics other than mammography and colorectal cancer screening.

Read the full abstract...

There is a trend towards greater patient involvement in healthcare decisions. Although screening is usually perceived as good for the health of the population, there are risks associated with the tests involved. Achieving both adequate involvement of consumers and informed decision making are now seen as important goals for screening programmes. Personalised risk estimates have been shown to be effective methods of risk communication.


To assess the effects of personalised risk communication on informed decision making by individuals taking screening tests. We also assess individual components that constitute informed decisions.

Search strategy: 

Two authors searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, The Cochrane Library, Issue 3, 2012), MEDLINE (OvidSP), EMBASE (OvidSP), CINAHL (EbscoHOST) and PsycINFO (OvidSP) without language restrictions. We searched from 2006 to March 2012. The date ranges for the previous searches were from 1989 to December 2005 for PsycINFO and from 1985 to December 2005 for other databases. For the original version of this review, we also searched CancerLit  and Science Citation Index (March 2001). We also reviewed the reference lists and conducted citation searches of included studies and other systematic reviews in the field, to identify any studies missed during the initial search.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials incorporating an intervention with a 'personalised risk communication element’ for individuals undergoing screening procedures, and reporting measures of informed decisions and also cognitive, affective, or behavioural outcomes addressing the decision by such individuals, of whether or not to undergo screening.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently assessed each included trial for risk of bias, and extracted data. We extracted data about the nature and setting of interventions, and relevant outcome data. We used standard statistical methods to combine data using RevMan version 5, including analysis according to different levels of detail of personalised risk communication, different conditions for screening, and studies based only on high-risk participants rather than people at 'average’ risk. 

Main results: 

We included 41 studies involving 28,700 people. Nineteen new studies were identified in this update, adding to the 22 studies included in the previous two iterations of the review. Three studies measured informed decision with regard to the uptake of screening following personalised risk communication as a part of their intervention. All of these three studies were at low risk of bias and there was strong evidence that the interventions enhanced informed decision making, although with heterogeneous results. Overall 45.2% (592/1309) of participants who received personalised risk information made informed choices, compared to 20.2% (229/1135) of participants who received generic risk information. The overall odds ratios (ORs) for informed decision were 4.48 (95% confidence interval (CI) 3.62 to 5.53 for fixed effect) and 3.65 (95% CI 2.13 to 6.23 for random effects). Nine studies measured increase in knowledge, using different scales. All of these studies showed an increase in knowledge with personalised risk communication. In three studies the interventions showed a trend towards more accurate risk perception, but the evidence was of poor quality. Four out of six studies reported non-significant changes in anxiety following personalised risk communication to the participants. Overall there was a small non-significant decrease in the anxiety scores. Most studies (32/41) measured the uptake of screening tests following interventions. Our results (OR 1.15 (95% CI 1.02 to 1.29)) constitute low quality evidence, consistent with a small effect, that personalised risk communication in which a risk score was provided (6 studies) or the participants were given their categorised risk (6 studies), increases uptake of screening tests.