We’ve been sharing and learning from stories for centuries, actually as long as we humans have had the spoken word. A personal story is a powerful way to communicate. It can produce emotion and sympathy from the audience. It can help us connect with each other on a deeper level. However, as powerful as they may be and as much as they may resonate with us, personal accounts are not the basis for medical recommendations.
Personal accounts can be flawed. Our epidemiologists experience this often. When they begin a foodborne outbreak investigation, most patients they interview are certain it was one particular food, regardless of the evidence. For example, we may have 15 ill patients with the same symptoms who attended a party together, and four of them are certain it was the salad they ate, especially after the four talk with each other. We know, however, that the other 11 ill patients didn’t eat the salad, so even though those four patients are convinced, it’s not the salad.
This also happens when you look at why people go to the ER and compare it to the doctor’s diagnosis. For example, people may tell the hospital they are having a heart attack, stroke, etc., but what’s actually happening may be very different from what they think is happening.
In addition, sometimes personal accounts don’t include all the contributing factors. The person in the story may have had other conditions that contributed to the outcome (diabetes, cancer, HIV, etc.). But a healthy person, without those conditions, wouldn’t experience the same outcome.
Even when personal accounts include the physician’s official diagnosis and they list contributing factors, it still can’t be the basis for broad medical recommendations. One story of what happened to one person or even a few people is not enough information to form a medical recommendation. We talked about the importance of having a body of evidence, here and here.
Be aware when reading a health article or story about someone’s experience. It may be a meaningful, powerful story, but don’t use the story as the only source for a decision you make about your health. When making decisions for yourself and your family, look for the evidence behind the story. Talk to your health care provider. Seek out more information.