Thursday, December 6, 2018

A "little information" can be dangerous to your health

“A little information can be a dangerous thing.”

I don’t know who first said that; no one seems to. But it is used all the time, and as a physician I both see the impact of that little knowledge on people’s health and the difficulty of striking a balance between providing meaningful information in a form that people can use and oversimplifying to the point of danger. I have worked very hard on honing this skill, and think I do it reasonably well, but I am absolutely certain that I have failed abysmally time and time again. Hopefully, it has not hurt too many people, but who knows?

I have written before that one of my roles, as a friend and family member, is to try to interpret for them what their doctor meant by what s/he told them. Or, more correctly, what my friends and family members think s/he told them. Indeed, a key part of this is trying to figure out what the doctor (presuming they are reasonably competent) might have said that led my friend/relative to think that what they are telling me is what s/he said.

And, just as I make the assumption that these doctors are reasonably competent, I make the assumption that those friends and relatives are reasonably intelligent, or at least not particularly less so than the bulk of the population (side note: I honestly think that, on average they are far more intelligent). This is borne out by the fact that it is not just friends and relatives. From time to time, I overhear conversations between other people about their health. One of the most common places is the locker room at the gym; this is because I am there dressing for long enough to be able to overhear a conversation, and also because, as a retired person, I go in the middle of the day when all the other retired – and, therefore, older, and more likely to have health problems – people are there. Usually the conversation is bi-directional but almost always one of the people is acting as a health consultant to the other, advising based on their personal experience of having had, or having a friend or relative who had, the same thing. Or, and here is where a lot of the danger comes from, something that seems very similar.

[This is the time to review, either via YouTube or its transcription on one of my old blogs, "Eggs Benedict" and "Choosing Wisely": often the best thing to do is nothing, the Woody Allen bit “Eggs Benedict”.]

Things that seem similar may not be the same – or even similar. To a health professional, there is a huge difference between an orthopedist (a bone surgeon) and an orthodontist (a dental specialist who straightens crooked teeth), but to a regular person they sound a lot alike. And it is not only confusion of words; lots of conditions that are very different sound very similar (you know, a lot of diseases end in “-itis”, which just means “inflammation of”). And even conditions that are very similar – or even the same – manifest differently in different people depending upon a lot of personal characteristics (just to name a few: age, sex, weight, co-existing conditions [another term that doctors use all the time that people may not understand], and duration and exact character of symptoms and findings). Lots of stuff is treated differently in its early stages than in its later stages, and often many different treatments are available. Maybe the one the doctor chose for you isn’t the best, and maybe the one you see advertised on TV or the home remedy advised by your aunt will work better. Or maybe not. Maybe, even, there was some scientific rationale behind that choice of treatment.

Which, of course, leads inevitably to a short discussion of direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs, particularly on television. I see these a lot more than I used to, not because I sit around in retirement watching daytime TV but because of the same gym; while I’m on the elliptical I am often unable to choose shows (ones with plots) because someone else has already chosen the program on the group TV, and there are a lot of ads. Many of them for treatments for pretty uncommon diseases. Which is, by the way, a guarantee that they cost a fortune. After all, why advertise on TV, a very expensive proposition, unless you stand to make a lot of money either because a lot of people have the problem your drug treats (e.g., arthritis) or the drug you are selling (clue: anything whose generic name ends in “-ib”, made from recombinant DNA) is so expensive that even a small market will make you a fortune? There is absolutely nothing at all good (and I’ll say that again!) about direct to consumer advertising of drugs on TV (“ask your doctor about whether [incredibly expensive] ‘Blorkamib’ is right for you!”). Except, of course, for the drug company that makes it and advertises it. These ads create unrealistic hope and expectation, create doubt as to whether your doctor is up-to-date on the latest treatments (you know, s/he is busy seeing patients all day so may not see the ads on daytime TV!), and sets you up to expect miracles. (By the way, there are very few of these.) If you must watch such commericials, I suggest you only focus on the fine print possible – often common and very bad – side effects in the small print at the end.

The late, great Hawai’ian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole makes a valiant effort on the last cut of his album “IZ” to explain the cause and treatment of the congestive heart failure (along with, and in part caused by, his tremendous obesity) that eventually killed him at the age of 38. It’s a pretty good discussion of the role of oxygen, although it doesn’t quite get it right, but it may have helped some of those who heard it. He had great influence; his recording of “Somewhere over the rainbow” mixes up the lyrics from different verses, but I suspect that for many people, hIZ lyrics are now the ones they know (so if they seem disconnected to you, don’t blame original lyricist Yip Harburg!).

But it is not just singers who have trouble with it; being educated and smart doesn’t make one medically knowledgeable. I know this from treating lawyers, accountants, engineers, English professors, and even medical school faculty in the basic sciences (although the physiologists, unsurprisingly, understand heart failure better than IZ…). It makes it hard to try to convey accurate information, as completely as possible, without losing people’s ability to grok it and without using metaphors that, while intended to help, may unintentionally send folks off to the wrong conclusions. It is important to try, though, and to ask not if people understand (usually they’ll say yes) but what they understood, so you can correct any misinterpretations.

People will probably do what their mother tells them to anyway.


Anonymous said...


Here is the full quote:

It's found in Alexander Pope's poem An Essay on Criticism, composed in 1709. Pope wrote “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”Aug 27, 2014

The second part of the quote often is forgotten--it is admonishment to not base opinions on part of the facts

Steve Griffith

Unknown said...

A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
--from An Essay on Criticism (Alexander Pope, 1709).
It's at least as true now as it was then!
-----Paul Mermin

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