One Doctor is Betting a Scientific Formula Can Fix How Medicine Works

By Adam Clark Estes on at

Here's a startling fact: Doctors sometimes prescribe treatment just to cover their own backs. Or due to tradition or outdated training or even a simple little hunch. But it doesn't have to be that way, and David Newman is the doctor trying to bring us a better future.

Wired published a profile on the New York City emergency room doctor that will make you rethink your last trip to the clinic. Newman started a website called TheNNT.com that claims to quantify the benefit or potential harm of treatments, rather than relying on subjective human expertise.

It seems like a good thing to do: unnecessary medical treatments have cost hundreds billions of dollars — not to mention the unquantifiable amount of pain and suffering caused to patients.

The formula behind Newman's site is based on a system developed by epidemiologists in the 1990s called the "number needed to treat." This is effectively the number of people who would need to endure a particular treatment for one person to benefit. For instance, the NNT for Zofran, an anti-vomiting medication, is 5. For every 5 patients who take the drug, statistics show that 1 of them will stop vomiting. That's actually a pretty good NNT. The NNT for taking aspirin to avoid a heart attack is 2,000. That adds up to a lot of wasted aspirin.

The implications of using this system over the existing one, which, again, depends on tradition and hunches are extraordinary. It's worth keeping in mind that Newman, a doctor, presumably hopes to help doctors do their jobs better; he is not encouraging you to disobey your own PCP or lose faith in medicine. But the next time your doctor tells you to take a pill, it doesn't hurt to ask if it'll actually do any good.

Read the full profile on Wired to get a better idea of what Newman's up to. [Wired]

Photo by Andrew Hetherington / Wired