When your high-pitched, eardrum-grating alarm snatches you from a deep slumber, you have several options. You could shut off the incessant beeping, continue resting and miss class; hit snooze, temporarily delay facing the world and arrive late to class; or hop out of bed, bleary-eyed but invigorated for the day ahead.

Each choice comes with its own set of positives and negatives. If you decide to skip lecture, you risk missing important class material, performing poorly on exams, and not seeing the lovely faces of your classmates. Managing the risks associated with skipping class is straightforward because there is a clear right and wrong.

However, managing risks becomes more complex when dealing with the medical sphere.

My dentist, an overzealous chap, keeps encouraging me to have all four wisdom teeth removed. At the insistence of my dentist, I met with a maxillofacial surgeon who told me that my bottom wisdom teeth roots have grown into my lower jaw nerves. These nerves are responsible for feeling when we touch our lips, nose, skin, or mouth, and allow our taste buds to sense different foods.

Among patients who have the same complication as I do, one out of a hundred suffers nerve damage and loss of feeling in the lower jaw during wisdom tooth removal surgery. Though this reduction in sensation typically lasts anywhere between a few days and six months, feeling never returns for 1 to 3 percent of patients. The maxillofacial surgeon ended my consultation by heartily informing me that he has never had a patient permanently lose feeling. Even so, I did not want to be his first, and thus was not sure if I should opt for the procedure.

Thinking about my predicament left me utterly puzzled; how do I effectively weigh the pros and cons of a medical procedure when my body will be affected by the eventual outcome? How can I even make meaning of quantified risk statistics? It is difficult to judge whether or not you will be part of the unfortunate 1 percent who face the ultimate perils when going forward with a potentially hazardous operation.

Health care practitioners who regularly perform risky procedures are used to monotonously listing off the litany of bodily consequences that can occur. To physicians, the ordeal is a preventative measure to avoid future litigations, and thus is done with little enthusiasm or further discussion. However, to the patient this one-sided conversation is downright terrifying.

A patient who is not well-versed in modern medical technologies only has himself and cold, hard numbers to base his decision off of; no matter what option he chooses, it is a pure gamble. Ultimately, whether you survive a medical procedure with or without complications comes down to luck, fate, destiny, or the big guy in the sky; whatever you choose to call it.

In medicine, it seems there are no guarantees. There is no cure-all; each possible treatment comes with risks. The success or failure of a cure is grounded in experimental probabilities, but the human brain struggles to make concrete decisions when there is potential for such disastrous effects on the body.

From a patient’s perspective, it would be helpful if physicians spent more time discussing the pros and cons of each medical procedure in layman’s terms.

There must also be an established support system, which consists of previous patients who have and have not faced complications. This network must be willing to speak with a prospective patient, and guide him or her through the journey. Though these solutions may not be perfect, they would make the process more human.

Medicine is grounded on patient interactions, but procedure risk statistics and the ever-present threat of litigation widens the gap between patients and physicians. Patients deserve better than pure numbers; they need some reassurance and comfort before gambling their lives for medicine.

 

Nikita Deshpande is a freshman in the College. The Century Cap appears every other Friday.

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