The Question Your Doctor Will Never Expect You to Ask

The end of every prescription drug commercial includes a familiar message to the audience: “Ask your doctor if this medication is right for you.” 

And depending on how busy your doctor is, they may actually sit down and discuss this with you. But there’s another (perhaps more important) question that you should ask during this conversation. It’s one they’ll probably never expect you to ask.

Allow me to provide some brief background first…

Some really smart people work behind the scenes in public health – they’re called epidemiologists. These folks have an important role because their findings shape policy decisions and evidence-based practices.

When it comes to medication, they can be tasked with interpreting a drug’s effectiveness. One way to do that is with a rarely publicized calculation called the Number Needed to Treat, or more simply, NNT. 

Now, I’m telling you this because the prescription drugs you learn about from those TV commercials all have their own NNT scores. And instead of being influenced by attractive actors, compelling background music, and hypnotic imagery, you can focus on factual data.

So, what does this information tell you? From a statistics standpoint, it reveals how many patients will take a particular pill before one notices the desired effect.

A perfect NNT score has a value of 1. This implies that 100% of people who take it will benefit.

Researchers have suggested that drugs with NNT scores greater than 50 are of little value. NNT scores in the 200-300 range are just plain embarrassing.

Truthfully, these calculations can often be complex (don’t expect your doctor to know them offhand). There are a variety of factors that must be taken into account. Realistically, some people won’t understand the value of this number. Others simply don’t care. And ultimately that might be one of the reasons NNT scores are never advertised.


Nevertheless, informed patients are empowered patients.

So if you’ve been offered a prescription drug that you’re unfamiliar with, or would like to understand it a bit better, I encourage you to ask your doctor to help you find out the medication’s NNT score. Here’s an online resource that might help.

One Comment

Karen Johnson Tuesday at 15:28

Omg, thank you!

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