The Problems with Precaution: A Principle without Principle

by Larry Emmott on June 4, 2011

in Health Care Politics,Management

In theory precaution and careful planning seem so obviously right. After all you should, “Look before you leap.” On the other hand, “He who hesitates is lost.”

The linked article from The American Magazine does a good job of explaining the issue and how precaution can go from a virtue to a major problem when we try to legislate precaution into public health and the environment.

 Advocates of the precautionary principle think so, and argue that formalizing a more “precautionary” approach to public health and environmental protection will better safeguard human well-being and the world around us. If only it were that easy.

via The Problems with Precaution: A Principle without Principle — The American Magazine.

The same issues can affect how we use technology in dentistry. By nature dentists are thoughtful, scientifically oriented and cautious. Dentists want to know the facts, avoid mistakes and make good decisions. For example, some dentists are so afraid of paying too much for technology or making a sub optimal choice they have made the decision not to buy anything.

And it works! They never pay too much and they never get the wrong thing. Of course they never get anything, even the right thing at the best price, and they never get the benefit of new technology.

We can never create a completely safe risk free environment. Progress, in fact life itself, requires risk.

Making the decision to purchase and implement new technology does involve risk and it can be frightening. It can involve a lot of money. It can also involve changing our comfortable proven way of doing things.  Faced with this uncertainty some dentists solve the dilemma by doing nothing and then justify their actions by telling themselves that precaution is always the best policy.

But of course that just isn’t so. If it was we should implement a nationwide maximum speed limit of ten miles an hour. That would save thousands of lives every year and as the precautionists are wont to say, “If it saves just one life it is worth it.” That is absurd. The fact is there are some, many, risks we are willing to take because the benefit is worth it.

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{ 1 comment }

Jim June 4, 2011 at 8:05 pm

What an insightful post. As a patient, I would prefer to have my dentist succumb to the lures of technology as long as the advantage of using such would outweigh the disadvantages. But that’s just me.

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