My life lately has been dominated by numbers. There are good numbers. There are bad numbers. There are less than ideal numbers and there are holy-shit numbers.

It may seem crass at times to reduce a patient to their numbers, but there’s a certain effectiveness to it.

First, there’s their medical record number. I honestly don’t care about this other than the fact that for parts of my job (such as recording an EKG) they need to have a bracelet on them with their name and medical record number on it. I’d call this a neutral number.

Then there’s a number like 130/80 for a blood pressure. Generally this is a good number. But context can matter. Was it 180/120 a few minutes ago and is continuing to drop? If the next reading is similar, great. If the next number is 100/60, the nurses and doctors are going to start to get a bit concerned. If it was 100/60 before and now has risen to this and stays here, they’ll relax.

Even a number like 170/120 might not elicit much concern if the patient is otherwise stable. Yes, your cardiologist might be concerned long-term, but for short-term if it’s stable, the nurse will consult with the doctor, but won’t be rushing around too much.

60 is another number. Are we talking pulse or blood sugar or respirations? In the first case, that’s a pretty good number. In the second, it’s a bad number and again will get folks moving a bit. In the final case, that’s a very bad number!

346 is another number. If it’s a blood sugar, then we’re starting to talk holy-shit (to the point where the hand-held monitor I use to measure it will require an extra notation in the recording.)

When I was learning my wilderness medicine and later started teaching it, I developed the idea of what I call “Sesame Street Medicine”. This was not a knock at all at what we were doing but more on an approach to take. There’s a lot to be learned from “One thing is not like the others”, just like in Sesame Street.

In the cases here, other than blood sugar, which I suspect most of my readers have never looked at theirs, one can often rely on their own experience to get somewhat of an idea of whether a number is good or bad. This can be a useful guideline when looking at numbers. Consider your own numbers. Consider numbers you’ve heard from friends. Now compare.

Now, obviously a trained medical person can definitely glean a lot more information from the numbers than a layperson can, but that doesn’t mean as a lay person you can’t look at some of the numbers and start to think, “that seems less than ideal.”

But yes, in the end, we look at numbers. A lot. In context they can have a lot of meaning. So no one wants to reduce a patient to only their numbers, but numbers can be a good start.

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