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Obstet Gynecol. 1999 Jun;93(6):910-4.

Patients' understanding of medical risks: implications for genetic counseling.

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Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, University of California, San Francisco, USA.



To assess patients' ability to compare magnitudes of Down syndrome risk at maternal ages of 35 and 40 years, expressed as rates or as proportions.


We used a self-administered, anonymous questionnaire that posed the same comparison in two different formats: 2.6 versus 8.9 per 1000 women (rates) and one in 384 versus one in 112 women (proportions). The study setting included several university-affiliated obstetrics and gynecology outpatient clinics in San Francisco, California. A total of 633 women, whose primary languages were English, Spanish, or Chinese, participated. The main outcome measure was correct identification of the larger of two risks.


Women were more successful with rates (463 of 633 respondents, 73%) than with proportions (353 of 633 respondents, 56%). A paired analysis, in which each woman served as her own control, found risk assessment to be significantly better with rates than with proportions (P < .001). Women with little formal education had difficulty understanding risks framed either way.


The traditional use of proportions to express risk in genetic counseling lacks scientific basis. Rates were easier to understand than proportions, regardless of respondents' age, language, and education.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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