On Wednesday, I gained an insight into my problem with numbers. I shall explain.
It is not uncommon for me to tell people that I don’t like numbers or that I find data and especially statistics off-putting. Sure, I am able to work a calculator, understand square-roots and algebra – that is not what I mean; I even ‘get’ basic statistics.
No, that’s not it –
It is the overuse, the sometimes superabundance of numbers in healthcare that maddens me. When folk quote figures:
‘Eating tuna fish increases your risk of mercury poisoning by 12%’
‘Pollution causes an extra 1200 deaths per year in Devon’
‘1,000 units of Vitamin D a day protects you from cancer/heart attack/depression ’
Facts like these, which are of course not facts, just words and made-up numbers. Yet, when you hear someone in authority quoting them, particularly a doctor or, even more frighteningly, a professor, people tend to be lulled into a state of credulity paralysis and are led to believe anything.
The five-year survival rate for your cancer is 50%.
In five years, you will either be alive or dead; zero or 100% – there are no halfway measures in life.
And this is touching the core.
Statistics you see, do carry some meaning, they essentially reflect the odds or likelihood of an event, and within biological systems, or human populations, the most accurate statistics are those involving lots of people, not thousands, but tens and hundreds of thousands. The more accurate the statistics, the more impersonal the data, the further away the predictions are from individuals.
And here it is.
My adoration of person-centred care, the value I place in this system of interpreting health and wellbeing can only be seen through the lens of the individual. One person, one experience.
One in a thousand people may experience an adverse event, yes, 999 folk will be fine, but, I am only really interested in who that one person is.
So, this is me, this is who I am. It doesn’t matter what happens to anyone else – it is my success, failure or survival that is important. The outcomes for the person I love are all I know, all I can perceive.
Put away therefore your estimates and calculations; don’t reduce the risk of my developing an infection by 95 per cent, just, wash your damn hands! Don’t shorten my average length of stay – get me out of here as quickly as you can and don’t play games with the economics of healthcare, do what is needed and get me right.