I am sick of hearing politicians and money-making parties talk about savings projections “over ten years.” It’s STUPID. We’re stupid if we listen.

Nothing (and I mean nothing) happens as projected ten years ago, not even five. It’s fiction; it’s a bogus way to inflate modest figures.

This is the same issue as e-patients understanding the statistics in research results, so we don’t get buffaloed by spin doctors.

Cutting through the spin isn’t always trivial but it’s also not rocket science. The basic trick is to break everything down into raw numbers using simple arithmetic. When somebody talks about $100B in savings over 10 yrs, think: That’s about $10B this year, out of a total US healthcare tab of $2.4 trillion. Oh wow (not): 0.4%!

Case in point: this week’s “Hospitals Reach Deal with Administration” (Washington Post):

The agreement that three hospital associations reached with White House officials and leaders of the Senate Finance Committee is the latest in a series of side deals that aim to reduce the cost of revamping the nation’s health-care system and to neutralize influential industries that have historically opposed such reforms.

Reduce the cost of revamping healthcare?? Folks, the generally agreed figure is that US healthcare costs per capita are 50% higher than other developed countries. 0.4% is a joke, a diversion. To inflate it, multiplying by ten, makes it a cynical diversion, a PR smokescreen.

But as I say, we can see through it – and I mean all of us, citizens, journalists, everyone. Stories like that get no traction if journalists see through the smoke; great training on that, with examples, is presented in the informative article discussed in our Making Sense of Health Statistics. It has great anecdotes about how policy people, journalists and even doctors very often misunderstand statistics, with good concrete advice about how to correct it.

And if you want to get a little deeper into it, Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the Web) gave a phenomenal talk at TED this year on the future of the internet. He says the next great potential of the internet will come from new analyses of all the data in the world, and we can’t do that if the Web just contains other people’s interpretations and summaries. His talk ends with a rallying cry: “Raw Data Now! Raw Data Now!”

Use your arithmetic skills; don’t settle for ten year figures. You can do it.

Your first assignment: when you hear someone say “over the next ten years,” divide by ten.

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