A recent column by Dr. Pauline Chen at the New York Times explores a surprising oversight in modern healthcare: Doctors don’t really have a clue how to predict how long a patient will live. In the absence of a widely accepted, systematic method of prognosis, they’re kind of making it up—an informed guess, with the benefit of education and experience, but a guess nonetheless.
Prognosis was once a diligently studied, widely practiced part of a physician’s job, Chen writes. But as treatments improved, and keeping patients alive longer became ever more possible, the unpleasant but necessary skill of predicting when patients might die fell by the wayside. A recent study, she reports, revealed just how much: