Leaflets, words and statistics

I have previously confessed my tendency to read labels on bottles, jars and the bottoms of plates.

This week I had cause to read the warnings leaflet from inside the box of some prescription medication;  a treasure trove of words and weirdness.  I particularly enjoyed bullet point number 1:  ‘Keep this leaflet.  You may need to read it again.’

And I have read it more than once.  Evidently written with some attempt to make it comprehensible to those who are not medical professionals privy to the more arcane vocabulary used by doctors, it still contained words which I failed to find when I looked them up in my dictionary.

While it explained words such as ‘hypertension’ (high blood pressure), and ‘diuretics’ (medicines that increase the amount of water that you pass through your kidneys), it left ‘primary hyperaldosteronism’ unexplained.  I can only assume if you’ve got it, you know.

It was in the ‘Side Effects’ section that I spent most time.  Not only does it presumably encapsulate the results of clinical trial and studies, the vocabulary also reflects the rich texture and layered gradations possible  in the description of human sensations.

There are six categories of side effect: very common, common, uncommon, rare, very rare and not known.  Sounds a bit like one of those surveys:  how would you rate your happiness on a scale of ecstatic, very happy, happy, ok, not bad, despondent, miserable.

But no.  In the world of ‘Package Leaflets’ rarity has a particular statistical significance.  ‘Very Common’ is happening in more than 1 in 10 patients, ‘Common’ is happening in 1 in 100 to 1 in 10 patients…… all the way up to happening ‘in less than one in 10,000 patients’.  (And yes, I did have to overcome my reflex to change that to ‘fewer’)

So if the patient is feeling a bit listless, say, is that the ‘debility’ or ‘fatigue’ that are common, or the ‘somnolence’ and ‘sleep disorders’ that are uncommon, or might I have missed the fainting that is rare?  If they become aware of their heart beating faster is it the uncommon ‘palpitations’ or the rare ‘atrial fibrillation’?

In the part of the list that I mentally tagged ‘upset tummy’, between abdominal pain and diarrhoea came ‘obstipation’.  Now that looked like a word that should be in the dictionary, but in my Oxford concise there was nothing between ‘obstinate’ and ‘obstreperous’  (hey, now that’s a bit of syncronicity for a Sunday morning) so I had to resort to the internet.  It looks like it might have something to do with constipation, doesn’t it?  Well it does, only worse; but it does seem like an odd choice bearing in mind that the lesser complaint with the more familiar word isn’t on the list.

In case you’re concerned, the patient has suffered no obvious side effects as yet.

I’ve given up trying to refold the leaflet into the creases with which it came out of the box, so it’s now a simply stuffed back in so I know where to find it when I want ‘to read it again’.

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  1. Rowena,

    As a person who has had a little flirt with old age illness over the last couple of years, I empathize with this post:)

    Not for the first time, I note your good use of ambient light for your images.

    That one, for instance, tells a story. I find myself asking questions. What does she use a notebook for? The dictionary, why that one? Lastly, what is outside those windows?

    It might not seem storytelling to you, but it is to me.

    When you get round to a post about photography, I’d be interested in what equipment you’re using. If you felt like giving some insight into the picture taking process, that would be a bonus.


    • Brendan
      Thank you. I’m really only a ‘happy snapper’ so hadn’t thought about writing about the photos, but you have put the thought in my head now, so may be soon.


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