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The problems with heuristics in healthcare

| Mar 9, 2020 | Medical Malpractice

Most people in Lakewood likely understand that doctors are paid the proverbial “big bucks” mainly for two reasons: the impact of their work on patients’ lives and the education and experience required to practice medicine. With this understanding also comes the expectation that when a patient seeks treatment, every reasonable effort will be employed to discover the root cause of their issue. This leads many to question why medical misdiagnoses are such a serious problem. The fact that study results shared by the American Association of Retired Persons show that participant rates of misdiagnoses were as high as 20% (with 66% requiring at least an adjustment to an initial diagnosis) reaffirms this fact. 

While highly skilled in their professions, doctors are still human (and thus subject to judgment errors). Oftentimes these errors are driven by an over-reliance on heuristics, which are external factors that can influence decision-making. While it is not uncommon for heuristics to have a hand in reaching a bonafide conclusion (in almost any industry), placing too much faith in them can lead a practitioner astray. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has identified the following scenarios where this can be true when delivering treatment: 

  • Relying too heavily on an initial diagnostic impression 
  • Basing opinions on recent experiences 
  • Allowing patient demographic factors to influence conclusions 
  • Placing too much emphasis on expert opinions 

The common thread between these scenarios is that each may end up contradicting a patient’s actual symptoms or the results of initial diagnostic testing. It is when a doctor allows them to override such elements that the potential for a misdiagnosis increases. A review of visit records (and notes indicating that a provider’s opinion is contrary to what a patient’s physical manifestations are) may confirm cases where this occurs.