Here's a startling fact: Doctors sometimes prescribe treatment just to cover their own arses, or due to tradition or outdated training, or even a simple little hunch. But it doesn't have to be that way, and David Newman is the doctor trying to bring us a better future.
Wired published a profile on the New York City emergency room doctor that will make you rethink your last trip to the clinic. Newman started a website called TheNNT.com that claims to quantify the benefit or potential harm of treatments, rather than relying on subjective human expertise.
It seems like a good thing to do: Unnecessary medical treatments have cost the US hundreds billions of dollars — not to mention the unquantifiable amount of pain and suffering caused to patients.
The formula behind Newman's site is based on a system developed by epidemiologists in the 1990s called the "number needed to treat". This is effectively the number of people who would need to endure a particular treatment for one person to benefit. For instance, the NNT for Zofran, an anti-vomiting medication, is five. For every five patients who take the drug, statistics show that one of them will stop vomiting. That's actually a pretty good NNT. The NNT for taking aspirin to avoid a heart attack is 2000. That adds up to a lot of wasted aspirin.
The implications of using this system over the existing one — which, again, depends on tradition and hunches — are extraordinary. It's worth keeping in mind that Newman, a doctor, presumably hopes to help doctors do their jobs better — he is not encouraging you to disobey your own PCP or lose faith in medicine. But the next time your doctor tells you to take a pill, it doesn't hurt to ask if it will actually do any good.
Picture: Andrew Hetherington / Wired