Expressing death risk as condensed life experience and death intensity

Med Decis Making. 2013 Aug;33(6):853-9. doi: 10.1177/0272989X13484389. Epub 2013 Apr 11.


Some risk exposures, including many medical and surgical procedures, typically carry hazards of death that are difficult to convey and appreciate in absolute terms. I propose presenting the death risk as a condensed life experience (i.e., the equivalent amount of life T that would carry the same cumulative mortality hazard for a person of the same age and sex based on life tables). For example, if the risk of death during an elective 1-hour procedure is 0.01%, and same-age and same-sex people have a 0.01% death risk over 1 month, one can inform the patient that "this procedure carries the same death risk as living 1 month of normal life." Comparative standards from other risky activities or from a person with the same disease at the same stage and same predictive profile could also be used. A complementary metric that may be useful to consider is the death intensity. The death intensity λ is the hazard function that shows the fold-risk estimate of dying compared with the reference person. The death intensity can vary substantially for different phases of the event, operation, or procedure (e.g., intraoperative, early postoperative, late postoperative), and this variability may also be useful to convey. T will vary depending on the time window for which it is computed. I present examples for calculating T and λ using literature data on accidents, ascent to Mount Everest, and medical and surgical procedures.

Keywords: health literacy; numeracy; patient decision making; risk adjustment; risk communication.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Death*
  • Death*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Male