Do You Really Know Your Health Risk?
Odds Are You Don't -- And Neither May Your Doctor
What's My Health Risk? continued...
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."
Benefits Come With Risks
The important thing, Paling and Gigerenzer say, is not to get frightened into bad health decisions.
"People should remember that any time you try to get a benefit in life, it is inherently the case that risks are attached," Paling says. "The important thing is to put risks into perspective and try to keep calm so you can make the best decision. Listen to what your emotions tell you -- but also be guided by the facts. And now, for the first time, there are ways for doctors to clearly show you what your odds are."
"Dare to know. You have to get out of that decide-by-emotion attitude when it comes to your health," Gigerenzer says. "You do have the ability to know your risk. Ask questions. Get answers put in a way you can understand."