The role of numeracy in understanding the benefit of screening mammography

Ann Intern Med. 1997 Dec 1;127(11):966-72. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-127-11-199712010-00003.


Background: Quantitative information about risks and benefits may be meaningful only to patients who have some facility with basic probability and numerical concepts, a construct called numeracy.

Objective: To assess the relation between numeracy and the ability to make use of typical risk reduction expressions about the benefit of screening mammography.

Design: Randomized, cross-sectional survey.

Setting: A simple random sample of 500 female veterans drawn from a New England registry.

Intervention: One of four questionnaires, which differed only in how the same information on average risk reduction with mammography was presented.

Measurements: Numeracy was scored as the total number of correct responses to three simple tasks. Participants estimated their risk for death from breast cancer with and without mammography. Accuracy was judged as each woman's ability to adjust her perceived risk in accordance with the risk reduction data presented.

Results: 61% of eligible women completed the questionnaire. The median age of these women was 68 years (range, 27 to 88 years), and 96% were high school graduates. Both accuracy in applying risk reduction information and numeracy were poor (one third of respondents thought that 1000 flips of a fair coin would result in < 300 heads). Accuracy was strongly related to numeracy: The accuracy rate was 5.8% (95% CI, 0.8% to 10.7%) for a numeracy score of 0, 8.9% (CI, 2.5% to 15.3%) for a score of 1, 23.7% (CI, 13.9% to 33.5%) for a score of 2, and 40% (CI, 25.1% to 54.9%) for a score of 3.

Conclusions: Regardless of how information was presented, numeracy was strongly related to accurately gauging the benefit of mammography. More effective formats are needed to communicate quantitative information about risks and benefits.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Educational Status*
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Mammography / statistics & numerical data*
  • Mass Screening / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • New England
  • Registries
  • Regression Analysis
  • Risk Assessment
  • Surveys and Questionnaires