If a doctor tells a patient that studies have shown that a certain pill can cut the patient's risk of a certain disease in half, would the patient be as willing to take the pill if the doctor said that it cuts the risk of disease from 2 percent to 1 percent, asks The New York Times' Nicholas Bakalar. These are both ways of describing the same data. In a review of studies published in The Cochrane Library, University of Buffalo researchers found that different doctors describe the same data to their patients in different ways, and that the patient's decision relies on how the doctor presents that data, Bakalar says. A doctor describing relative risk reduction, for example — cutting disease risk in half — is more likely to get a patient to take the pill than the doctor describing the absolute risk reduction — the 1 percent drop. "Both patients and doctors viewed a treatment as more effective when presented with its relative risk reduction rather than its absolute risk reduction," Bakalar says. Journalists must also be careful with how they present new studies or data, the researchers add, lest they add to the public's misperception over how impressive a new drug, treatment, or finding really is.
Open to Interpretation
May 31, 2011