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John Whyte, M.D., MPH Headshot

Can Pictures Help You Make Better Health Decisions?

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That usually applies to the artistic realm, but we now are learning that it also applies to medicine. (And they do say that medicine is an art as well as a science)

The way information is presented can impact your decisions, and in so doing also affect your health. Take a minute to think about all the different ways you see health information. Sometimes, it's a picture. Sometimes, it's a graph. Other times, you see numbers and statistics. Have you ever thought that these differences could impact the decisions you make? These include decisions as serious as whether to go on a particular medication or to see your doctor in the first place.

You might be surprised to learn that researchers have found that the way information is presented influences the choices you make. Indeed, your decisions may be dependent on how your doctor chooses to display scientific findings. And there's lots of different ways doctors can present information. What do I mean?

Research shows that when doctors use a statistic called "relative risk reduction" to explain to patients the impact of a medication, patients were much more likely to choose that medication than when other statistics were used. Yet the actual change in risk might be minimal. And when patients were shown visual evidence, a bar graph was more than twice as effective in convincing patients to see a doctor than other types of pictures. Why does this matter? It proves that the way you see health information can be a very important factor in how you decide on your care. And this is critical since not all information has the same reach in helping you make the right decision!

Of course, this doesn't mean you should demand that your doctor only explain treatments to you in terms of absolute risk reduction or that you should only look at bar graphs or pictures for your future decisions. Not everyone interprets information in the same way. But we do know that health literacy is a major reason why patients don't follow medical advice. Simply put, sometimes you just don't understand what the doctors said, and you might be too embarrassed to ask her to clarify. And health numeracy is even more concerning -- do you really know the difference between 0.1 and 1 percent?

I always ask patients at the end of a visit to explain back to me the treatment plan. And many times, the patient and I aren't on the same page -- so I then spend more time making sure they can understand the plan. So if you don't understand something your doctor is telling you about a treatment option or a disease, ask her to show you a picture or a graph describing it. Like I said at the beginning, a picture is worth a thousand words... and it just might help you stay healthy!

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