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For any therapeutic intervention in an individual, there is a balance between the potential benefits and the possible harms. The extent to which the benefits are desirable in a given condition depends on the efficacy of the intervention, the chance of obtaining it and the seriousness and intensity of the condition. The extent to which the harms are undesirable depends on the nature of the hazard that can lead to harm, the chance that the harm will occur and its seriousness and intensity. Rational therapeutic decisions require clinicians to consider competing courses of action, with potential benefits of different desirability and potential harms of different undesirability. They also have a duty to explain to the patient, for the contemplated interventions, both the possible benefits and the potential harms that the patient may consider significant. In an individual patient, it is necessary to consider (a) the probabilities of benefit from both intervention and non-intervention and (b) the probabilities of harm from both intervention and non-intervention. However, there are several potential problems. Here, we consider how failure to distinguish maximum benefits from probable benefits, or hazards (potential harms) from probable harms, and failure to consider all the competing probabilities may lead to imperfect therapeutic decisions. We also briefly discuss methods to assess the benefit to harm balance.

Original publication




Journal article


Drug Saf

Publication Date