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Cancer patients avoiding math impacts decision-making: Study

Researchers have found math skills can influence decision-making in cancer patients.

By
Amy Wallace
A new report has found that healthcare decision-making can be negatively impacted by a patient's lack of math skills. Photo by PathDoc/Shutterstock
A new report has found that healthcare decision-making can be negatively impacted by a patient's lack of math skills. Photo by PathDoc/Shutterstock

Feb. 20 (UPI) -- Researchers at The Ohio State University found cancer patients who lack math skills can be negatively impacted in the decision-making process.

"The ability to understand numbers is associated with all kinds of positive health outcomes, including for cancer patients," Ellen Peters, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University, director of the Decision Sciences Collaborative and author of the study, said in a press release. "The problem is that too many people aren't good with numbers or are afraid of math. But we're starting to figure out the best ways to help these patients so they aren't at a disadvantage when it comes to their treatment."

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Calculating risks, evaluating treatment options and figuring odds of medication side effects are among the ways math can influence decision-making in cancer treatment. Individuals who are not good at math and have difficulty with calculations could make uninformed decisions regarding treatment.

The study showed the effect math skills have on breast cancer patients. Women who had surgery for breast cancer were given options for further treatment, such as hormonal treatment, chemotherapy, combined treatment or no treatment, and their likelihood of 10-year survival based on each plan.

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Patients were asked to estimate their own chances of survival for 10 years with each treatment option. Results showed that patients who were better at math were more pessimistic than the data suggested they need be, but their estimates varied based on the numbers they were given.

"For those who were less numerate, their survival estimates were pessimistic, but remained the same number no matter what numbers they were presented," Peters said. "It was as if they didn't read the numbers at all."

Patients who were less numerate "rely more on their emotions" to make decisions regarding their health and were more influenced by how the information was presented than the information itself.

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Peters said that cancer is not the only disease where math skills can impact treatment and outcomes. Previous studies have shown that diabetics with lower numeracy scores have higher blood sugar levels and children with type 1 diabetes have higher blood sugar levels when their parents are poor at math.

"Numbers are important, whether you like them or not," Peters said. "And nowhere are they more important than when it comes to your health."

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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