What Bears Can Teach Us About Risk
In July, I visited Alaska with my family. If you haven’t visited Alaska or haven’t put it on your bucket list, you should. It is amazing.
One of the things we did when we were there was to go see grizzly bears on Brooks Falls in Katmai. Usually when people say “see grizzly bears” they mean from a long way away, often through binoculars. This was not that – we got closer to the bears than we would otherwise want.
Fortunately, this time of year the bears are focused on eating salmon and largely ignore human observers. We spent a beautiful, sunny day watching bears and salmon. It was one of the best days I have spent in a long time, with lots of time for contemplation in a stunning part of the world.
I took this picture and have shown it to many people.
Their reaction has gotten me thinking about how we perceive risk. Most people point to the bear and say something like “sucks to be a salmon” or “watch out for the bear”. Indeed, the bear seems like the biggest risk by far. The funny thing about it is that the bear is almost irrelevant from a total risk perspective. The falls pose a far greater threat to the salmon.
Having the luxury of a lot of time to observe, I calculated the success rate of the bears catching salmon (30-60% depending on the maturity of the bear and their technique) and the salmon clearing the falls (<1%). I also noted that bears catch about 10 salmon per day. There were 10 bears hunting that day so between them they consumed about 100 salmon. Of the more than 10,000 salmon entering the river in a day, they have about a 1% chance of being eaten by a bear. If we assume that a salmon gets 10 tries at the falls, they have about a 90% chance of not making the falls and dying before they get to spawn.
We see this phenomenon a lot in our daily lives. After a plane crash, everyone asks “are you worried about getting on a plane” – even though the risk of being killed while in a car is thousands of times greater than in a commercial airliner. In 2016, there were over 40,000 traffic fatalities in the U.S. but only 325 commercial aircraft fatalities in the entire world (and 0 in the U.S.). Yet, nobody asks you if you’re worried about getting into a car to drive to the airport.
In healthcare, we work in an environment where lives are being saved every day, but there are many risks of doing harm along the way. As we assess these risks, it is important to consider whether we are overly focused on the bear-sized risks, or if we are aware of and working to reduce the total risk. After all, if the salmon could increase their success rate jumping the falls to just 1.1% it would be the same reduction in total risk as eliminating all the bears.
P.S. — If you are interested in seeing the bears in action without getting on a plane, here is a link to the National Park Service live feed from Brooks Falls.