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PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e46556. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0046556. Epub 2012 Nov 2.

The effect of chance variability in blood pressure readings on the decision making of general practitioners: an internet-based case vignette study.

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  • 1Primary Care Clinical Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, United Kingdom.



Guidelines for the management of blood pressure (BP) in primary care generally suggest that decisions be made on the basis of specific threshold values (e.g. BP 140/90 mmHg); but this fails to adequately accommodate a common cause of variation--the play of chance.


To determine the impact of chance variability in BP readings on the clinical decision making of general practitioners (GPs) regarding anti-hypertensive treatment and cardiovascular risk management.


We used an internet based study design, where 109 GPs were assigned to manage one of eight case vignettes (guidelines would recommend treatment for only one of the eight) and presented with blood pressure readings that were randomly selected from an underlying population.


Seventeen (15.6%, 17/109) GPs consulted the vignette for whom treatment was recommended, but only 7/17 (41.2%) GPs prescribed treatment, whereas 14/92 (15.2%) GPs prescribed medication to the other vignettes. When deciding to follow-up a vignette GPs were influenced by threshold values for systolic and diastolic BP, but not by the overall cardiovascular risk. If the first reading was a low BP (systolic <140, diastolic <90) GPs were highly likely to discharge the vignette and follow-up a high BP reading (diastolic >90 or systolic BP≥140). Similar factors predicted the decision to prescribe a drug, although the vignette's cardiovascular risk (>20%) was now statistically significant (p = 0.03).


GP decision making, whilst generally consistent with guidelines, appears to be compromised by chance variation leading to under and over treatment. Interventions to adequately accommodate chance variability into clinical decision making are required.

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