Engage: Blog

Helen Osborne | Jan 2013 | 0 COMMENT(S)

Understanding Numbers: Why Health Literacy & Patient Engagement Matter by Helen Osborne President, Health Literacy Consulting, Founder, Health Literacy Month, Producer and Host, Health Literacy Out Loud (podcast series), and Author, Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message, Second Edition

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with something serious yet treatable. My doctor is Bita Tabesh, a wonderful physician who not only is smart but also kind and caring. Of course, we talk a lot about medication. Dr. Tabesh tells me that there are two very different types of drugs for women with my health history. She gives me lots of data about risks and benefits. I chose which medication to take.

About a year later, this medication causes such nasty side effects that I have to stop taking it. Now it’s time to make another choice–to take the other medication or nothing at all. No surprise, my vote is to take nothing at all.

But Dr. Tabesh wants me to understand the implications of this choice. She gives me lots of data about absolute risk, relative risk, numbers needed to treat, and 5-year outcomes.

I try to act like I understand. But really, I’m not “getting” all those numbers. Luckily, Dr. Tabesh senses this. She then stands up and gestures what these numbers mean: “Here’s how much this new drug could help ([gesturing high). Here’s the risk of taking it (gesturing low).”  Thanks to her hand movements, I “get” what Dr. Tabesh is talking about and decide to take the other drug.

What’s so special about story? Nothing. And that’s why it’s important. Doctors talk with patients about medication all the time. But there are lots of people like me who, for whatever reason, don’t “get” numbers.

I propose that we do for our patients what Dr. Tabesh did for me – communicate in whatever ways people can understand. Imagine what healthcare would be like if all providers communicated this way. The benefits would be high and the risks would be low.

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