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At a glance: Choosing between treatment options

Last Update: June 9, 2011.

Photo of man with doctor
When you are sick or have a health problem, situations often arise where you must choose between 2 different treatment options. Often it is easy to decide: either there is a treatment that is right for you – or none of the options is worth the trouble or justifies possible adverse effects.

Yet sometimes you will either want to or have to compare different treatments and weigh their possible benefits and harms against one another. In this case you probably have some specific questions about the individual treatments. We have put together a list of general questions that may help you get the information you need so that you can find the treatment that is right for you.

Which condition or which health problem am I dealing with exactly?

If you are unsure about which condition or which treatments you are dealing with, ask your doctor. The medical term for high blood pressure, for example, is hypertension – not to be confused with hypotension, low blood pressure. Knowing the medical terminology can help put you in a position to get more information.

Doctors do have a duty to inform the patient, which means that they must fully inform you about your condition and the treatment options. That also includes information about possible – wanted or unwanted – effects of the therapy.

What will happen if I just wait at first?

The medical term for how a condition will most likely develop is prognosis. The answer to this question is very important: if a condition heals on its own within three days, but the treatment starts to help only on the third day, it is unlikely to be worth doing. People who have acute sinusitis are, for instance, usually healthy again within two weeks – regardless of whether they take medication or not.

A prognosis cannot tell you exactly what will happen in your particular case: each one of us is individual and reacts to diseases and treatments differently. But a reliable prognosis will at least tell you how a disease usually progresses. Ideally, there is information about how the disease progresses in people who

  • are about your age,
  • are of your sex (woman or man),
  • are in a similar stage of disease (mild or severe),
  • have a similar state of health (for example, if you have other conditions).

Unfortunately, there is not always information on all of these aspects.

Which treatment options do I have?

The following questions could be of interest to you:

  • What can I do on my own?
  • Which medications are there (both prescription-only and over-the-counter)?
  • Is surgery or other procedures a treatment option?
  • Which complementary medical treatments are available?

It is important to know the correct name for all of the options that you are interested in – for the case that you ask others about them or that you look for more information.

Practical information can also be helpful: Where can I get the treatment? How much time will it require? How much could it cost? How much will it limit my daily activities?

What are the possible advantages and disadvantages of the treatments I am considering?

All treatments can have adverse effects, even if they can often be ignored. In order to be able to weigh benefits and harms, the following questions could be of help:

  • How likely is it that I will have a benefit from the treatment?
  • How likely is it that the treatment has adverse effects?
  • How great are the benefits or harms of the treatment? (Will I, for instance, feel slight improvement or be completely healthy again?)
  • When will the effect start, and how long will it last? (Will the treatment have an immediate effect? At what time of day do I have to expect adverse effects or side effects?)
  • What is the lowest dose, for which the medication still has a benefit for me? (This is important for avoiding adverse effects as much as possible.)
  • Can other therapies that I make use of influence the treatment? These also include complementary therapies (also called alternative medicine) and dietary supplements.
  • Will the treatment restrict my daily activities, for example the ability to work, to drive a car, to be there for my family or to be around other people?
  • Where can I receive the treatment?

How well studied are the treatments?

Treatments can be well-established and therefore have had their effects studied thoroughly, and considered standard – or they are relatively new or still being tested after being approved. If a drug has been on the market for less than 5 years, it is regarded as a relatively new treatment. This means that not so much is known yet about its adverse effects – especially in people who have more than one health problem.

Our knowledge of the benefits and adverse effects is not complete for many conditions and their treatments. Ideally, the person who provides you with information can also help you to understand how scientifically sound the information is.

We have put together more detailed information on some of the topics. If you are interested in one, click on the respective title:

Dietary supplements and complementary medicine

Why it is important to test treatments in randomized controlled trials

If you need more information, talk to your doctor or another health expert, or ask at the pharmacy. If you have found new information, it might be helpful to speak about parts that are important to you with your doctor. Exchanging ideas with others can also help you to find out what is important to you. You can turn to patient counseling centers and other patient organizations, for example. But in the end, every decision in matters of health is personal and individual: what is right for others does not have to be your best option.

Author: German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG)


  • Dierks M-L, Seidel G, Schwartz FW, Horch K. Bürger- und Patientenorientierung im Gesundheitswesen. Gesundheitsberichterstattung des Bundes, Issue 32. Berlin: Robert Koch Institute. 2006. [Full text - in German]
  • German Federal Ministry of Health and Social Security (BMGS), Federal Ministry of Justice (BMJ). Patientenrechte in Deutschland – Leitfaden für Patientinnen/Patienten und Ärztinnen/Ärzte. Berlin: BMGS, BMJ. [Full text - in German]
  • National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). General guidelines for medical practitioners on providing information to patients. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. 2004. [Full text]
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