Most might agree that physicians are one of our society’s most important performers; in fact their performance can mean life or death! The impact that a poorly or highly performing physician can have may be devastating or miraculous, and thus, there are rules, for the benefit of those they serve, about alcohol consumption and being an upstanding citizen. How then, does misinformation play into their professional code?

A new tool for assessing life expectancy has become available and may be used to alter a patient’s treatment plan. creates an easy data entry assessment tool for estimating in percentages how likely a person is to die in a given amount of time. While the immediate benefits may seem obvious, a family can take their sick loved one off of the emotion dulling medicine and allow them to live buoyantly during their remaining months, and obviously insurance companies would love to know that they no longer need to shovel over funds in the support of a patient who is going to pass on in the next year despite medical treatment. Clearly, there is an inevitable dark side to such an estimation process…

First, how does the information, that a patient has a 57% chance of dying in two years, affect the treatment plan prepared by a physician. Does taking the guess work and hope out of being an autonomous, competent professional affect their creativity and resourcefulness?

Let’s compare a physician’s work to that of an Olympic medal hopeful. Part of the drive that brings an athlete to the pool, seven days a week, to swim for 56 hours, is the hope that they could, through perseverance and skill, stand on the podium, with a chunk of shiny medal around their neck, representing the country they love. Had this same athlete known, that no matter their drive, they had just a 57% chance of winning a medal, would they have quite their day job, been separated from their family, and swam through the pain of a ruptured spleen? Perhaps. However, they may have also decided that the odds were too low for all they were risking.

On the same token, does putting a number, a completely arbitrary, algorithm generated number on someone’s life, affect the amount of time and effort that a physician puts into caring for your 72 year old spunky grandmother? When physicians are someone whom we want performing at their best, is it responsible to use an assessment tool which may detract from that performance? Do we want deciding our fate, or do we want the energetic, inspired physician who reads up on latest medical advances deciding our fate?

While shiny new assessments may appear beneficial and exciting, the psychological effects on both physicians and patients should be considered and not taken lightly.

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