Statistics Don't Help Much When You're the Patient

Don't rush so quickly for routine mammograms. No need to bother with annual pap smears.
What other time-honored advice would the medical profession like to revise next?
Shall we all start stuffing our faces with high-fat food?

For decades, doctors have been telling women to start getting mammograms at 40 and that early breast-cancer screening is the key to staying alive. Now suddenly, the eminent physicians at the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force are saying 50 is soon enough.

Too few cancers are being caught now, they explain. Too many unnecessary biopsies are being ordered.

And just as that news was sinking in, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists arrived with a second medical flash: Annual pap tests cause more health problems than they solve.

In both cases, the experts relied on solid-sounding statistics, studies both long and wide. In both cases, the new conclusion was greeted with an uproar of confusion, outrage and doubt.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius went so far as to say Wednesday that women should continue getting regular mammograms starting at age 40.

The doctors forgot something important on the way to their change of heart: Statistics will rarely calm a worried patient.

We keep learning this lesson, most recently in the big health reform debate. Human factors -- comfort, nervousness, just wanting to know -- all play a bigger role than the experts ever anticipate.

The nation's health is one thing. Mine -- or yours -- is another.

What are people comfortable with? Who do they really trust? What do they fear most? And this:
Change is never easy when health is on the line.

Ellis Henican is a columnist for Newsday and amNewYork. He is a Fox News contributor.

The doctors may have science on their side. They'll have ample time to prove it.
But they still aren't good at delivering big news.