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Open Access Technical advance

A new method for determining physician decision thresholds using empiric, uncertain recommendations

Michael V Boland12* and Harold P Lehmann2

Author Affiliations

1 Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA

2 Division of Health Sciences Informatics, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA

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BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making 2010, 10:20  doi:10.1186/1472-6947-10-20

Published: 8 April 2010



The concept of risk thresholds has been studied in medical decision making for over 30 years. During that time, physicians have been shown to be poor at estimating the probabilities required to use this method. To better assess physician risk thresholds and to more closely model medical decision making, we set out to design and test a method that derives thresholds from actual physician treatment recommendations. Such an approach would avoid the need to ask physicians for estimates of patient risk when trying to determine individual thresholds for treatment. Assessments of physician decision making are increasingly relevant as new data are generated from clinical research. For example, recommendations made in the setting of ocular hypertension are of interest as a large clinical trial has identified new risk factors that should be considered by physicians. Precisely how physicians use this new information when making treatment recommendations has not yet been determined.


We derived a new method for estimating treatment thresholds using ordinal logistic regression and tested it by asking ophthalmologists to review cases of ocular hypertension before expressing how likely they would be to recommend treatment. Fifty-eight physicians were recruited from the American Glaucoma Society. Demographic information was collected from the participating physicians and the treatment threshold for each physician was estimated. The method was validated by showing that while treatment thresholds varied over a wide range, the most common values were consistent with the 10-15% 5-year risk of glaucoma suggested by expert opinion and decision analysis.


This method has advantages over prior means of assessing treatment thresholds. It does not require physicians to explicitly estimate patient risk and it allows for uncertainty in the recommendations. These advantages will make it possible to use this method when assessing interventions intended to alter clinical decision making.