Here's a startling fact: Doctors sometimes prescribe treatment just to cover their own asses. Or due to tradition or outdated training or even a simple little hunch.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 U.S. 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 5. For every 5 patients who take the drug, statistics show that 1 of them will stop vomiting. That's actually a pretty good NNT. The NNT for taking aspirin to avoid a heart attack is 2,000. 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'll actually do any good.
Photo by Andrew Hetherington / Wired