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J Clin Epidemiol. 2002 Sep;55(9):888-92.

Number needed to treat: easily understood and intuitively meaningful? Theoretical considerations and a randomized trial.

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Institute of Public Health, Health Economics Research Unit, University of Southern Denmark, Odense 19 Winsløw Park, DK-5000 Odense C, Denmark.


Graphic representation was used to explore to what extent the number needed to treat (NNT) conveys the appropriate notion of benefit for the individual patient in interventions aimed at delaying adverse events. A sample of the Danish population (n = 675) was interviewed face to face, and asked whether they would consent to a hypothetical drug that reduces the risk of heart attack. The benefit of the drug was expressed in terms of NNT and was randomly set at 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, and 400. NNT does not convey information on the proportion of patients being helped by an intervention or the size of the delay of the adverse event intended to be prevented. The proportion of people consenting to the hypothetical drug was about 80%, irrespective of NNT, and some of those who rejected the drug misinterpreted the meaning of NNT. Lay people may have difficulties in understanding the meaning of NNT, and clinicians may do well to use the NNT with caution until more is known about how patients comprehend it.

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