Physicians, Politics, and Pragmatism

December 12, 2013

Medical practices are dealing with a tsunami of data and must strive to keep statistics honest.

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics." Mark Twain

Today's body politic is a morass of statistical conclusions selected to support a particular point of view.

It's nothing new. Mark Twain popularized the sentiment almost 125 years ago with his famous quote, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics."

What is new is that the expanding tsunami of data in our era is manna from heaven for partisan statisticians, particularly with regard to healthcare. The spin, often for political ends, is becoming a clear and present danger to us all.

I could list examples by the dozens, and nine of 10 would be misleading. Absolutely true so long as I select examples in the correct proportion. But, I won't. The holidays are here and I have cookies to eat. Way too much trouble.

The statistical conclusions that should trouble us all the most are those that concern our health. Give me a double-blind, IRB-monitored broad study, and I can make it optimistic, pessimistic or sensationalistic. So can pretty much anyone that can make sense of these squiggly lines that make words on paper. And, depending on whose agenda it supports, it will populate the Internet in those venues in a day or so.

So, as lay people, we have only one trusted, unimpeachable source that can interpret statistical results in the context of years of training, experience, and continued education. That's right, Dr. Oz. And physicians, both of whom will get it right 99.23 percent of the time give or take a gingerbread man. I like mine with eggnog spiked with dark rum, but, I digress.

Major decisions and policies get made with bad information provided in the wrong context.

Physicians need to be more than a patient's resource. Keeping statistics honest is a solemn responsibility.

Now, have that cookie. No, the other one with the jelly on top. Tasty …