Worry vs. Reality: The Real Risks You Face


Woody Allen defined major surgery as “anything being done to me.”

When it comes to evaluating medical risk — or risk of any kind, for that matter — it gets very personal, and when we’re weighing threats to ourselves or to others we care about, we tend to think with our hearts rather than our heads.

As Seen on TV

A sobering example of emotions overcoming reason when weighing personal risk came in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when many people who were frightened by images of airplanes crashing into buildings took to the roads instead of flying. But according to the National Safety Council, your lifetime odds of dying in a car accident are 1 in 242, compared with 1 in 4,608 of dying in all “air and space transport” mishaps combined. Take the bus, and those odds shrink to about 1 in 179,000.

One picture can indeed be worth a thousand words, and public perceptions about risk are often shaped by television news, which has immediacy and visceral impact, but might not provide careful reflection or thoughtful analysis.

Cause of Death

Lifetime Odds of Dying*

Car crash

1 in 242


1 in 1,028

Plane crash

1 in 4,508

Lightning strike

1 in 71,501

Bitten or struck by dog

1 in 137,694

Venomous spider bite

1 in 716,010

*for someone born in 2000
Source: National Safety Council

“In my opinion, it has a lot to do with the way the media handles the reporting of it. I think there are times when the media tends to overstate certain issues especially when it comes to medical problems. Obviously the media is very helpful in disseminating information, but if things are overstated, then they can result in people overreacting,” Michael I. Greenberg, MD, MPH, editor-in-chief of The Journal of Medical Risk, tells WebMD.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Remember the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) panic of 2003? According to the CDC, there were161 possible cases of SARS in the United States, and out of that number a total of eight were confirmed as having SARS; the remainder were classified as “probable” or “suspect” cases, and there have been no SARS-related deaths in the United States to date.

In contrast, every year approximately 36,000 Americans die from the flu, which is far more common than SARS, and just as easily transmitted. So why do stories about Cancer

1 of every 4 deaths

brain telling you to stay still, or to your guts screaming, “Get me outta here!”

Is It Safe?

The keys to making clear-headed decisions about specific risks, experts agree, are knowledge and trust, and both health-care consumers and their doctors have an important role to play in informing patients about medical risks.

“I work at a university training center and we try to emphasize that to our residents: Every time you’re with a patient is a teachable moment and you can use that moment to re-orient patients about the biggest risks that they should be concerned about and have an intelligent discussion with them about the risks that maybe are important to know about but that they don’t need to be obsessed over, compared to more life-threatening risks.” says Greenberg.

Paling puts it this way: “If a doctor or a surgeon is not responsive to questions or shrugs them off as being unimportant, then the risk gets bigger. When the patient really trusts the doctor, the risk automatically has gotten far smaller in perception. Trust may or not be justified, but it’s a factor.”

Sensible risk avoidance is also a matter of self-awareness, Ropeik tells WebMD.

“We have to understand that there are these emotional prisms that filter the facts into the decisions that we make. We have to recognize that that can be dangerous, if we underestimate a risk or overestimate it, we might not take proper precautions. We might be worried, too stressed; and stress is bad for our health.”

His take-home message? “Seek out trusted, trustable sources of information, and work a little harder at being informed.”