Expanded course description: The course will be designed for active participation and discussion, using examples from current events, advertising, official recommendations, and common experiences. We will not discuss individuals’ specific cases except in the abstract, but we will use detailed examples as a way to develop and test the concepts. As needed for class preparation, outside readings will be shared with the class in the form of emailed pdfs or links. Participants should expect to bring questions and work together in class to understand them. The course will not teach statistical methodology, but rather the concepts necessary to understand the data commonly presented to patients and the public. We will begin with personal health care decisions, but we will then move on to public policy, to see how the same concepts apply and how they interact with political and societal planning.

Week 1: Introduction. We will review and define the range of topics to be covered and use examples to show how our “common sense” does not always work so well. The questions brought forward by the class will be used to shape the course.

Week 2: Risks and Benefits. How well can these be understood for the decisions we make? How can they be quantified? How can statistics be used to mislead or better inform patients? How can we be confused by the placebo effect, and by our personal experiences?

Week 3: Risks and Benefits, part 2. We will apply what we’ve learned to a variety of examples, further describing what we mean by “effectiveness” and “harm”.

Week 4: Cost and Value. We will discuss the particular challenges of defining value in health care, given the wide range of insurance coverage and personal goals and expectations. Specific examples will help us at least address the questions more clearly.

Week 5: What is “the science”? We will discuss both the amazing progress that has been made in modern medicine and the gaps in our knowledge. How does research work? What are its limitations? We will emphasize the commonly misunderstood difference between causation and association, as that affects our personal decision-making constantly.

Week 6: Public policy. How do these concepts apply to groups of people? How do policy makers balance individual autonomy with public health? When do decisions made by individuals have a broader impact?

Week 7: Shared decision-making. How can complicated data be presented to facilitate more informed decisions? Can that be practical in the clinic? How can experts, advocates and advertisers share what they know effectively? Can we tell when we are being misled?

Week 8: Examples and review. We will review historical examples of how health care data were used, both successes and failures, including the Covid-19 pandemic. We will also work through examples suggested by the class, incorporating and practicing what we’ve learned.