Starfish Statistics

07/26/2011 02:26 pm ET | Updated Sep 25, 2011

The Starfish Story has become a metaphor for doing good. Throw stranded starfish into the sea one at a time, and you are making a real difference in the life of that one starfish.

Doctors, in many ways, are the ultimate starfish throwers: one patient at a time, day after day.

My wife is a doctor. She's an obstetrician and gynecologist, which can be a fairly pleasant doctoring experience: two healthy people show up; three leave. That's on a good day. On a bad day, things can go really wrong. And then there are the less pleasant aspects of the job.

When a sixteen-year-old comes in for her third abortion, there isn't much an individual doctor can do other than "give the talk." Within "safe, legal and rare," a doctor's primary job is to focus on the safe. "Legal" is for others to decide. Doctors do address "rare," but it's difficult to tackle when encouraging words and pretty handouts are all you have. You can't force anyone to get an IUD or use a condom, let alone abstain altogether.

That's where it's crucial to take a step back. What are the best ways to prevent the largest number of unwanted pregnancies? How to make births safer? How to help the most patients?

It turns out one way to save a large number of people comes back to my line of work. There's a good reason the Environmental Protection Agency is sometimes called a public health agency.

EPA's latest "good neighbors" rule alone will prevent some 13,000 to 34,000 premature deaths. That, of course, is statistically speaking. You can't point to individual bodies, the same way as you can't point to individual patients when you tackle the "rare."

It may not be quite as satisfying as personally fighting against the tides and throwing in individual starfish, but the impact is orders of magnitude higher. It's also the reason why my wife is currently studying for her statistics midterm.

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