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Colorectal Cancer Health Center

Do You Really Know Your Health Risk?

Odds Are You Don't -- And Neither May Your Doctor
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What's My Health Risk? continued...

What is the chance that someone who tests positive actually has colon cancer?

Doctors are supposed to know this stuff. But more than half of them were way off, guessing 50%. The correct answer is about 5%. Answers ranged from 1% to 90%.

"Doctors don't get the right training for communicating health risk," Gigerenzer says. "Many young people interested in science study medicine because they want to avoid statistics and psychology. And even if they get statistical training, they get it in a form they do not truly understand or easily forget."

That's true, says John Paling, PhD, research director at Risk Communication Institute, Gainesville, Fla.

"Risks in every other profession are recognized as so difficult to communicate that they use specially trained people to explain them," Paling tells WebMD. "Every doctor has to do health-risk communication and none are trained."

That's scary. It means most of us base important life decisions on our gut feelings. Once upon a time, that may not have been a bad idea. But in today's technology-driven world, feelings dangerously deceive.

That's why statements like "cuts risk in half" or "triples your risk" are so persuasive. They appeal to our emotions, but they don't give us the information we need.

Understanding the big Picture

Paling has developed several simple tools to help doctors explain risk. One, called the Paling Palette, is remarkably simple.

It's just a picture of 1,000 people. If the chance of having a 39-year-old woman having a baby with Down syndrome is 1.2% -- 12 in 1,000 -- the doctor colors in 12 of the figures. In a different color, he marks the four out of 1,000 women who have miscarriages as a result of amniocentesis. In a graphic way, the picture makes clear her overall risk of both outcomes. It lets her make an informed choice.

"In talking about risks, there is nothing more important than whether patients really trust their doctors," Pauling says. "This lets the doctor and patient sit down shoulder to shoulder to discuss things together and strengthen the doctor/patient bond."

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