A typical scene at your healthcare provider's office might look like this: you describe a physical complaint to your doctor, who examines you and writes a prescription for a medicine that has worked well for some of his other patients with similar complaints. You accept the prescription and leave.
But what's wrong with this scenario?
Two things, according to shared decision making experts:
Shared decision making is a process that recognizes the value of both the healthcare provider's recommendation and your personal perspective. Sometimes there is not a clear "best" treatment option, and that is when shared decision making can be most useful, providing a balanced process that considers all the factors at play.
Both you and your provider have a valuable perspective on medical decisions: your provider is trained in treatment options and is likely familiar with current scientific research, and you have the unique perspective of how your personal history, culture, needs, lifestyle, and desires affect your health and wellbeing .
A body of research conducted by the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation  indicates that the best medical decisions are made when they take both the provider's input and the patient's needs and desires into account. This process enables the provider to make more confident recommendations suited specifically for you, and it offers you a better sense of the range of available treatment options.
The process of shared decision making can be very simple. Your provider may offer you a "decision aide," such as a pamphlet about a condition or treatment, or an online tool so you know your options. He or she may describe alternative treatments and answer questions about the pros and cons of each.
In turn, you share any personal, social, cultural, or financial factors that may impact your medical decisions so the provider can take these into account when making treatment recommendations. For example, it would be important that your provider know you're an avid tennis player before suggesting courses of treatment for a torn rotator cuff.
The most effective way you can engage in shared decision making with your provider is to be prepared to discuss the multiple factors in your life that can help him or her make treatment recommendations. Ask questions. Take notes. You may want to print out our worksheet  that helps gather your questions and important notes before the appointment.
While there are many demonstration sites where healthcare providers participate in research on shared decision making, this process is not practiced by all providers. To help you make balanced and informed decisions, there are also online tools to help you weigh medical and health decisions. These tools allow you to take objective medical information and research, as well as your personal needs and desires, into account. In essence they simulate the process you would do with a provider who practices shared decision making (though they should not be used as a replacement for real medical advice).
If you are interested in exploring more decision-making tools online, the Ottawa Personal Decision Guide  offers condition-specific interactive tools, as well as a general decision making guide. Healthwise  is another good website with tools that help you weigh the benefits and risks of your healthcare options while taking into account your own personal needs and wishes.
The Informed Medical Decisions Foundation http://informedmedicaldecisions.org/ 
Ottawa Personal Decision Guide http://decisionaid.ohri.ca 
Shared Decision Making Month Events www.sdmmonth.org