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BMC Cancer. 2017 Nov 21;17(1):780. doi: 10.1186/s12885-017-3783-6.

Treatment recommendations within the leeway of clinical guidelines: A qualitative interview study on oncologists' clinical deliberation.

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Institute for Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, Ruhr University Bochum, Markstr. 258a, D-44795, Bochum, Germany.
Institute for Ethics and History of Medicine, University Medicine Greifswald, Ellernholzstr. 1-2, D-17487, Greifswald, Germany.
Department for Hematology, Oncology and Palliative Care, St. Josef-Hospital, Ruhr-University Bochum, Gudrunstr. 56, D-44791, Bochum, Germany.
Institute for Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, Ruhr University Bochum, Markstr. 258a, D-44795, Bochum, Germany.



Recommending the optimal treatment for an individual patient requires a well-balanced consideration of various medical, social and ethical factors. The interplay of these factors, interpretation of the patient's situation and understanding of the existing clinical guidelines can lead to divergent therapy recommendations, depending on the attending physician. Gaining a better understanding of the individual process of medical decision-making and the differences occurring will support the delivery of optimal individualized care within the clinical setting.


A case vignette of a 64-year-old patient with locally advanced pancreatic adenocarcinoma was discussed with oncologists in 14 qualitative, semi-structured interviews at two academic institutions. Relevant factors that emerged were ranked by the participants using the Q card sorting method. Qualitative data analysis and descriptive statistics were performed.


Oncologists recommend different therapeutic approaches within the leeway of the relevant clinical guidelines. One group of participants endorses a rather aggressive and potentially curative approach with a combination chemotherapy following the FOLFIRINOX protocol to provide the patient with the best chances of resectability. The second group suggests a milder chemotherapy approach with gemcitabine, highlighting the palliative approach and the patient's quality of life. Clinical guidelines are generally seen as an important point of reference, but are complicated to apply in highly individual cases.


The physician's individual assessment of factors, such as biological age, general condition or prognosis, plays a decisive role in treatment recommendations, particularly in those cases which are not fully covered by guidelines. Judgment and discretion remain crucial in clinical decision-making and cannot and should not be fully ruled out by evidence-based guidelines. Therefore, a more comprehensive reflection on the interaction between evidence-based medicine and the physician's estimation of each individual case is desirable. Knowledge of existing barriers can enhance the implementation of guidelines, for example, through medical education.


Clinical decision-making; Clinical deliberation; Clinical guidelines; Pancreatic carcinoma; Qualitative research; Treatment recommendation

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