To what degree is the state of our health really in our own hands? According to author Thomas Goetz, it very largely is. In his new book The Decision Tree, published last week, Thomas argues that since we live in a world where data on anything, including personal health, is abundant, all we need to do is feed this data into a personal flow chart that will aid us in making the right decisions.
He cites data from the Center for Disease Control illustrating that 55 percent of deaths among people between 15 and 64 are attributable to personal decisions. While this number includes deaths caused by reckless driving and chain smoking, Thomas' bigger point is that people should rely on a data-based 'Decision Tree' instead of making haphazard choices. This system would map out our options, factoring in all the relevant information on our background and status, and guide us toward the best possible choice, i.e. whether to take a screening test or not, how to best respond to a diagnosis, or whether to try a new drug.
Of course, we PWDs know all about 'health by the numbers.' We also know that medicine is not exact science — your body doesn't know or care about the math, and therefore often doesn't produce projected outcomes (see #bgnow twitter feed if you don't believe me !)
What's nice about the concept introduced by Thomas is that it encourages actions towards self-improvement. It underpins the Health 2.0 movement (giving people tools to make better health choices), and lays particular value on areas that Yours Truly has recently focused on. For example, people are starting to use the DiabetesMine care plans on Keas to build their own D-Decision Trees. They can upload lab tests, which help them make more educated decisions about what to focus on with their diabetes care.
You'll understand why Thomas hones in on data and online tools for day-to-day health management when you know what he does for his day job. He is Managing Editor at Wired magazine, the de-facto bible for tech nerds and gadget freaks. (Disclosure: yes, I read Wired cover-to-cover every month. Hubby and I each have our own subscriptions! Geeky, but true)
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But if the tech focus here sounds daunting, it really shouldn't. Health management is about simple data points, such as A1C, blood glucose, cholesterol levels, body-mass-index and other values that most of us area already very familiar with.
One of the guiding principles in The Decision Tree is this: openness is a good thing. Thomas encourages readers to get involved in online communities to learn more about their ailments. He provides compelling examples of how people with chronic conditions turned to communities such as Patients Like Me to find out from experienced peers what their doctors were unable to tell them. Well, this rings a bell, doesn't it? Like most of you, feeling left in the dark with insufficient information is what turned me to the Internet after my initial diagnosis. It inspired me to create DiabetesMine and eventually led to my involvement with DiabeticConnect, where over 100,000 PWDs now turn to each other for information and support.
The Decision Tree is not just about diabetes, of course. My 2 cents is that it's a good read for anybody who wants to take more control of their own health. Once you've read the book, your work isn't over, but rather just beginning. In order for your new knowledge to have an impact, you need to build your own Decision Tree, using the information and tools available to you.