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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Innumeracy and catastrophizing; partners in creating medicine's anxiety disorder

I am currently reading Richard Thaler's book "Misbehaving". Perhaps I spend too much time thinking about this subject, but I am constantly reminded t hat even the most educated professionals that I work with are blind to how they "misbehave" as Thaler describes. He uses t his term to describe behaviors and decisions made by individuals that are simply not rational.
His path into these studies came from seeing inconsistencies in how the world of economics initially viewed human decision making, before the widespread introduction of concepts of behavioral economics. He noted that from a purely economic sense, people made really crazy decisions. They did not behave like what was referred in the field as Homo economist (or Econs for short). Basically, the numbers did not add up.


These sorts of inconsistencies are certainly not limited to economic decisions. They touch all decisions made by people in all walks of life. They are simply rampant in health care and the misbehaving is certainly not limited to patients and consumers of health care. I would argue that the business model upon which much of current health care delivery is based is very dependent upon getting all actors to "misbehave". The growing consumption of services in the health care arena is driven by almost universal innumeracy displayed by providers and consumers alike, which is leveraged to create widespread catastrophizing of potential consequences. The anxiety created serves as a powerful marketing tool. Those of us within the health care delivery world derive substantial financial benefit from our patients being innumerate and from being innumerate ourselves.
One particular leverage point is we all know what everyone's final fate will be and it terrifies most if not all of us. We can point to the potential for catastrophe and ultimately we will always be right.  While we cannot dismiss that fact that every single one of our patient's lives will be marked by the ultimate catastrophe, that being one's own death, we also must realize that the stakes involved with every medical decision cannot be viewed as tightly linked to this outcome. Like the undesirable outcome for any given person when all of their personal decisions are coupled in their mind invariably to potential catastrophic outcomes, if medical care operates by catastrophizing everything, we will end up with a professional anxiety disorder.
We are already there. The medical profession suffers from anxiety disorder which is brought about and aggravated by our inbred tendency to catastrophize everything. It is dysfunctional.

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