07 July 2014

Physicians and statistics

This morning I read an article from BBC News about doctors and knowledge. It reminded me on frustrating experience I had when my mother was dying.
I called up the doctor who was in charge of my mother care to ask about some info. My mother just had a second, stronger stroke, while in the hospital, so I wished to know what are her chances for survival. Instead, her doctor told me she does not believe in statistic, but relies on God's will.
Yes, really, a medical doctor who was employed at neurology department of the hospital gave me an answer more suitable for a priest!  My mother died, and from her medical records it was clear to me that doctors in that hospital simply did not do enough to save her.
At the time, I thought that such incompetence was reserved only for a small country ravaged by corruption. But then I read this article and thought through my recent experiences with US doctors.
Unfortunately, I had 2 traffic accidents in last 5 years. My experiences with medical personnel gave me one huge warning flag: 'CAREFUL GREED AHEAD.' (i.e. hospital charged catheter $90, the same one that can be ordered from  medical supplies companies for less than $5 !) Before I read this article, I thought that greed is the main reason behind such behavior, and I was complaining about it. Loudly. It seemed with me that I had to learn medicine to make sure that I get the correct treatment.
This book actually points at the worse problem. Patient needs to learn medicine because doctors do not get statistic! That is really scary. But, in my opinion it has roots in the anti-science campaign that is ongoing in US. Interpretation of statistical results is part of scientific thinking, after all.
So, if you really wish to make sure that you are getting correct medical treatments, the ones that will actually help you, and not hurt you, take a free course about the statistical data analysis on Coursera (or any other on-line course providers of your choice).  This will help you to understand answers on the questions book author, Gigerenzer recommends patients to ask a doctor before agreeing on any kind of treatment:
"What are the alternatives?"
"What's the benefit and what's the harm?"
"Please tell me this in terms of absolute numbers. If 100 take this treatment and 100 people don't, what happens after five years?"

Your older self will be very grateful to your now-self.

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