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Numbers Dominate Our Experience With Health Care

“My doctor can titrate my chemotherapy to the milligram but can’t tell me when I am going to die,” a friend who was struggling with his treatment for cancer complained to me a couple years ago.

Had he lived, he might have been reassured by the announcement last week of a new scale that allows clinicians to estimate the time remaining to people with advanced cancer.  He was spending his final days “living by the numbers” of his white blood cell count, the amount and size of his tumors and suspicious lesions, the dosage of various drugs and radiation treatments. And he was peeved about what he saw as a critical gap in those numbers.  He believed (hoped?) that because his cancer was quantifiable and the treatment was quantifiable, that the time remaining should be similarly quantifiable.  He needed that information to plan how to use the time that remained.

Many of us would make a different choice about knowing how long we will live when we are similarly ill.  But most of us are attracted to the certainty we attach to the numbers that precisely represent aspects of our diseases.

It is not just when we are seriously ill that numbers dominate our experience with health care.  Advances in technology have made it possible to quantify – and thus monitor – a seemingly infinite number of physiological and psychological health-related states. For instance: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Prepared Patient Forum: What It Takes Blog*

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