sealPurdue News

June 1999

Patients better than doctors at predicting their health

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Patients, especially African-Americans, are better at predicting their future health than are their doctors, according to a Purdue University study.

"People assume that doctors are superior at knowing the health risks of their patients," says Kenneth Ferraro, a professor of sociology who studies the aging process. "However, we found that the patients' reports of their own health were more valid."

The discrepancy was greatest for African-American patients. Ferraro says it's well documented that various ethnic groups present themselves differently in health-care settings. "It might be that African-Americans are giving their doctors less information about their health," he says.

It's also true, based on research in hospital emergency rooms, that doctors look differently at different patients. "A patient's appearance and other factors can color the way he or she is treated," Ferraro says.

His study, reported in the April issue of American Sociological Review, analyzed health data collected nationally from nearly 7,000 persons between 1971 and 1975. Those studied were initially between 25 and 74 years old, and their health was tracked for up to 15 years.

When the data first were collected, the respondents filled out questionnaires about their health and also underwent extensive health examinations by doctors.

Ferraro then compared the information to predict the health outcomes of the patients. He found that the disease information provided by the patients was a better predictor of health than that supplied by the physicians. While the difference was modest for white patients, the physician examinations did not predict African-American health well at all.

"Doctors really depend on patients for a lot of information," Ferraro says. "The more descriptive you can be about your health, the better the doctor can do his job."

CONTACT: Ferraro, (765) 494-4707,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A copy of the journal article is available from Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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