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Examining the role of heuristics in healthcare

On Behalf of | Jun 12, 2020 | Medical Malpractice

Most people in North Andover likely understand that their healthcare does not come with a satisfaction guarantee. They know that their doctors can make mistakes (just like everyone). However, most still seek treatment expecting that clinicians will be right about their conditions or injuries most of the time. 

Sadly (according to data) that expectation is not always met. Indeed, the American Association of Retired Persons reports that a Mayo Clinic study revealed that as few as 12% of patients are initially diagnosed correctly by their doctors (with as many as 66% requiring a subsequent change or modification to their original diagnoses. 

Relying on “rules of thumb” 

What might account for these alarming numbers? Despite the advances made in diagnostic capabilities in recent years, heuristics still play a prominent role in healthcare. Heuristics are the generally accepted standards (“rules of thumb”) in any given industry. In healthcare, they help clinicians to develop their treatment plans in conjunction with actions widely recognized as best practices. 

One certainly does not want their doctor straying too far away from general standards of care when it comes to their treatment. At the same time, however, doctors should not allow heuristics to drive their decision-making when they are not supported by clinical indicators. Per the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, common scenarios where this happens include: 

  • When past experience influences a doctor’s decisions 
  • When doctors remain locked into an initial diagnostic opinion 
  • When doctors allow collateral information to bias their judgment 
  • When doctors rely too heavily on expert opinion 

Recognizing where heuristics may have contributed to a misdiagnosis 

It may seem difficult to determine whether heuristics may have indeed caused a misdiagnosis (as doctors may be unlikely to admit as much). However, visit documentation indicating that a doctor’s diagnosis seems contrary to what diagnostic tests suggest may be an indication.