Numbers and the Doctor/Patient Relationship

I have always been interested in communicating scientific information and probability. A paper co-authored by CLAHRC WM colleague Eivor Oborn [1] therefore caught my eye. The paper concerns numbers and their ‘performativity’, by which the authors mean how the numbers affect doctors, patients, and the interaction between doctors and patients. They use medical consultations in a Swedish rheumatology clinic to explore the issue, since this is a ‘data-rich’ environment. By this I mean charts are used to plot long-run numerical data relating to patient-reported outcomes, medical assessments, and laboratory data. The study shows that the numbers have high salience for patients who generally find graphical representation of long-run data useful. Doctors also find graphical display of trends useful in spotting threats to patient health. However, patients sometimes feel that the data on display take precedence over how they actually feel. That is to say, the doctor tends to focus on the numbers while the patient’s main symptom might not be captured in the numbers. Of course, there is no counterfactual, so how much of this dissatisfaction is caused by availability of numbers is uncertain. Also I felt that more could be said about the extent to which patients, and indeed doctors, really understand the meaning of the numbers they were seeing. Many people have poor numeracy skills and draw erroneous inferences from data. For instance, people tend to over-interpret improving trends following a run of high-values – the issue of regression to the mean, covered in the Method Matters section of a previous News Blog.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

Reference:

  1. Essén A & Oborn E. The performativity of numbers in illness management: The case of Swedish Rheumatology. Soc Sci Med. 2017; 184: 134-43.
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