Johns Hopkins Gazette | May 4, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 4, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 33
Health Risks/Benefits Conference Is Planned

Aim is to better educate professionals, medical journalists and the public

By Phil Sneiderman

A conference aimed at helping health professionals, medical journalists and the general public gain a better understanding of health benefits and risks will be held later this month on the Homewood campus. Speakers and research papers will address topics such as the risks associated with overtreatment and ways to make better-informed medical decisions.

The meeting was co-organized by Edward Bouwer, the Abel Wolman Professor of Environmental Engineering and chair of the Whiting School's Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins.

The event will focus largely on issues raised by Bouwer and his outside colleague, Erik Rifkin, in their 2007 book, The Illusion of Certainty: Health Benefits and Risks. Their premise is that because much information about health risks is confusing and contradictory, people need new perspectives and tools to help them make intelligent health decisions.

"This is a very timely symposium," Bouwer said. "We have a new president [in this country], and one of his highest priorities is to reform the nation's health care system and reduce its costs. Many of the presentations at this conference will focus on whether certain expensive tests and treatments are truly worthwhile."

Bouwer and Rifkin are not physicians. In writing their book they drew on their decades of experience as environmental health risk researchers and directed their expertise at the data in mainstream medical studies. They looked, for example, at the strength of the link between high cholesterol and heart disease, the usefulness of cancer screening and the safety of the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Among their book's favorable reviews was one in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. They also received praise for a key tool introduced in the book: a hypothetical 1,000-seat "Risk Characterization Theater." With seats representing people, this chart is designed to make it easier to view the absolute risks related to a particular disease, or the benefits of receiving certain medical screening or treatment.

"The book's reception has been a pleasant surprise," Rifkin said. "We've heard from several physicians who have used our Risk Characterization Theater to help their patients make decisions about hormone replacement treatment and kidney transplants."

To continue the discussion of issues raised in their book, the authors organized the upcoming conference, which they call the first International Symposium on Understanding Health Benefits and Risks. It will be held on May 28 and 29 in the Charles Commons Conference Center.

According to a published overview, the two-day event "will provide a forum for professionals from different disciplines to discuss a timely and increasingly important issue — the communication of health benefits and risks to patients and citizens."

The target audience includes health professionals, policy-makers, social scientists and journalists. For nurses and social workers, attendance has been approved for continuing education credit. People who write about health research should also benefit, the organizers said.

"Members of the media who report on medical studies do not always present the results correctly and effectively," Rifkin said. "Presentations at this symposium should help improve their understanding of how to successfully communicate health risks and benefits to the public. Empowering the public to make well-informed decisions about their health is a primary goal of this symposium."

One of the speakers will be health care/medical journalist Shannon Brownlee, whose talk is titled "Overtreated: Why Too Much Care Is as Bad as Too Little." Another participant is physician Avrum Bluming, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Southern California, whose topic is "Judgment Day: What Do We Know About HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy)? What Should We Know?"

Sponsors of the event include the Center for Contaminant Transport, Fate and Remediation, and the Institute for Policy Studies, both at Johns Hopkins.

More information about the symposium, including the schedule and registration details, is available at the event's Web site: first.


Related Web sites

Edward Bouwer's podcast on 'The Illusion of Certainty: Health Benefits and Risks'
A 'Johns Hopkins Magazine' feature on the book


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