Patients with cancer need better tools to help them sort out how best to calculate risks, evaluate treatment options, and figure odds of medication side effects, according to researchers at The Ohio State University in Columbus. The researchers have been studying cancer patients’ health and numeracy, which is the ability to understand and use numbers, and their findings contend that there are better ways to present numeric information about health risks and benefits so that all cancer patients can take part in shared decision-making more effectively.

Ellen Peters, PhD, who is a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science 2017 Annual Meeting in a talk entitled, “Numeracy and Health: A Tyranny of Numbers.”1 She said the ability to understand numbers is associated with all kinds of positive health outcomes for patients with cancer. Dr Peters went on to explain that the problem is that too many patients aren’t good with numbers or are afraid of math.

Dr Peters said numerous studies have shown that patients who are less numerate experience worse health outcomes. For example, patients with diabetes with lower numeracy scores have higher blood sugar levels and children with diabetes have higher blood sugar levels if their parents are less numerate. 

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Some data suggest that less numerate people rely more on their emotions to make health-related decisions. They are also more swayed by how information is presented to them rather than by the information itself, according to Dr Peters.  She suggests patients ask their clinicians to explain what the numbers mean and ask about absolute risk.


1. Peters E. Numeracy and Health: A Tyranny of Numbers. Presented at: The American Association for the Advancement of Science 2017 Annual Meeting. February 20, 2017.