Numbers Matter

Bob Hatcher

August 26, 2013


            It was my privilege to be on the Williams College board of trustees with a remarkable man, Faye Vincent. After graduating from Williams and from the law school at Yale, he became a successful lawyer and then president of Columbia pictures which at that time was owned by Coca Cola. So he was also a vice president of Coca Cola. Later on he became Commissioner of Major League Baseball.

            On the board at Williams he knew more about the numbers that were of importance to that school than any member of the board. He brought numbers into the discussion of many issues.

            From Faye Vincent I learned this truth: “If you don’t understand the numbers, you don’t understand the enterprise.”

For example, there was concern raised by some students that there were more square feet of space allocated to sports for men than women.  THIS WAS TRUE.  He pointed out, first, that more sports for men required large fields. Second, he provided data showing that more intercollegiate sports were offered for women at Williams than at almost all other schools. Third, he demonstrated with numbers that there were more square feet of space allocated to women’s sports at Williams than at any college or university in the entire country! This immediately resolved the issue as far as the board was concerned and it allayed the concerns of the students who had raised the issue.

            It is up to each individual to understand the numbers affecting his or her habits, career options, educational opportunities, health, happiness and relationships. Then we must act upon those numbers that impact us personally.

            Some important numbers must be simplified to a certain extent if they are to be at all helpful.

            If I were to tell you that the failure rate for women using a small contraceptive implant (Nexplanon) that is placed under the skin was 0.05% you might say, “So what.” You might say that 0.05% is not a number that talks to you except, perhaps, that it is very, very small. If I were next to tell you that the failure rate of female sterilization was 0.5% it might catch your attention that this was also small but was ten times HIGHER than the failure rate of that little implant. What might really stop you in your tracks if you were trying to avoid an unwanted pregnancy is the fact that the first year failure rate while using pills is 9 percent.

            Here is how those three numbers might be presented in an even more understandable manner:

Contraceptive Method               Pregnancies in first year of use

      In 10,000 typical women

Nexplanon implant                                                          5

Mirena IUD                                                                       20

Female sterilization                                                        50

Copper T IUD                                                                    80

Birth control pills                                                           900

No contraceptive at all                                              8,500

            You can now see why more and more women are choosing to use the Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives or LARC methods such as Nexplanon and Mirena and the copper IUD called ParaGard.

            Numbers do matter!

Robert A. Hatcher MD, MPH
Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics
Emory University School of Medicine
Atlanta, Georgia