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Health Matters: 'Well-chosen actions and treatment have chance of working'

By Dr Tim Allison

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Many people have been suffering from cold and flu symptoms this winter.
Many people have been suffering from cold and flu symptoms this winter.

The start of the year is often a time when we try to predict what will happen over the next 12 months.

Will the year 2023 be different from 2022? Will the Chinese year of the rabbit be different from the year of the tiger? Will our health of ourselves or our friends and family be better or worse during the year? Will Covid be around at the end of the year? Will the pressure on NHS services be any less?

Some people will try to make confident and detailed predictions about the future, but few will be correct if we look back in a year’s time. Perhaps that is why it is not too common to look back at previous predictions from last year to see what has happened.

I won’t make much in the way of predictions, but there are some things that we can be pretty confident about.

Related: Health Matters: Keeping up with a healthy lifestyle is what is important

Respiratory infections are more common in the winter because people stay inside and have close contact with each other. They also tend to follow similar patters from place to place and from year to year. So, I am fairly sure that Covid will become less common over the summer but is likely to come back in the autumn and winter.

Flu has had a much bigger impact this year than for several years. This is likely to continue for several more weeks, echoing what happened with the same virus in Australia during their winter in 2022.

Predicting what will happen to our own health is more difficult. There are so many different things that could happen to us that we can rarely be sure precisely what will happen to our health. We can though consider what is more likely to happen and what is less likely to happen. We can then do things that increase the likelihood of good things happening and decrease the chance of bad things happening.

Our actions, or medical treatments for that matter, will not always improve things, but well-chosen actions and treatment have the best chance of working.

An example of the use of probability or likelihood in deciding on treatment is the use of statin drugs to lower cholesterol and this has been highlighted in the media recently. For many people the decision on whether to take a statin is based on their likelihood of having a stroke or heart attack. If that risk reaches a certain level, it will be best, on balance, to take a statin.

Dr Tim Allison, director of public health for NHS Highland.
Dr Tim Allison, director of public health for NHS Highland.

There is a balance of risks and benefits with most treatments or actions, but some are more straightforward than others.

Physical activity and a healthy diet are extremely likely to improve our health. We cannot be sure how much they will help, but we can be pretty certain they will. It is a similar case for vaccination.

The future is difficult to predict accurately, but we can still do things that will make it more likely to turn out well.

– Dr Tim Allison is NHS Highland’s director of public health and policy.

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