How Survival Statistics Can Be Misleading

Do you ever hear someone talk about how great our healthcare system is because survival rates for a particular condition have gone up?  Of course you have.  Here’s one that says that cancer survival rates have doubled over the past 30 years.  

This sounds great.  We all get excited about this.  

BUT…the key question that I have to ask is whether this is tied to better identification of cancer and early screening.  If you screen more people and identify them earlier, you will have more survivors that live longer.  That’s just a reality.  For some people, the disease never will have progressed which is what leads us to this screening dilemma.

You don’t have to believe me.  You can read it from H. Gilbert Welch in the NY Times.  You can read about this in JAMA.  

I got started on this topic based on two things – (1) my reading of Otis Brawley’s book and (2) an article about paleo-oncology.  

In the second article, they were looking for evidences of cancer in ancient societies to see what that might teach us about cancer.  What I found most interesting was the comment about people believing that cancer was a modern disease attributed to our environment so that it didn’t exist long ago.  I can see how all the articles about things leading to cancer could create that perception, but it seems like a big jump to me.  

So, for those of you that are in healthcare, this is a great lesson about understanding the measures you use and how they drive actions.  For those of you as consumers, this is a good reminder to understand the metrics that are thrown around and question them.  

One Response to “How Survival Statistics Can Be Misleading”

  1. This was a good point of clarification that I received via e-mail from one reader…Survival rates are not the same as mortality rates.

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