A Royal Statistical Society Working Party recently recommended that "Greater use should be made of numerical, as opposed to verbal, descriptions of risk" in first-in-man clinical trials. This echoed the view of many clinicians and psychologists about risk communication. As the clinical trial industry expands rapidly across the globe, it is important to understand risk communication in Asian countries.
We conducted a cognitive experiment about participation in a hypothetical clinical trial of a pain relief medication and a survey in cancer and arthritis patients in Singapore. In part 1 of the experiment, the patients received information about the risk of side effects in one of three formats (frequency, percentage and verbal descriptor) and in one of two sequences (from least to most severe and from most to least severe), and were asked about their willingness to participate. In part 2, the patients received information about the risk in all three formats, in the same sequence, and were again asked about their willingness to participate. A survey of preference for risk presentation methods and usage of verbal descriptors immediately followed.
Willingness to participate and the likelihood of changing one's decision were not affected by the risk presentation methods. Most patients indicated a preference for the frequency format, but patients with primary school or no formal education were indifferent. While the patients used the verbal descriptors "very common", "common" and "very rare" in ways similar to the European Commission's Guidelines, their usage of the descriptors "uncommon" and "rare" was substantially different from the EU's.
In this sample of Asian cancer and arthritis patients, risk presentation format had no impact on willingness to participate in a clinical trial. However, there is a clear preference for the frequency format. The lay use of verbal descriptors was substantially different from the EU's.