The problems posed by heuristics in healthcare

Past posts on this blog detail the dangers posed by misdiagnoses. Yet even with the additional awareness directed at this issue in recent years, it continues to be one of the biggest problems in the medical industry. Indeed, per CBS News, doctors misdiagnose as many as 12 million patients every year.

Many in Edmond may question how is that doctors (with their many cumulative years of both education and experience) can be so wrong so often. Diagnostic technology continues to improve year after year, yet those utilizing that technology may still be subject to errors in judgment. Often those errors may be due to an overreliance on heuristics.

What are heuristics?

Heuristics are those practices and procedures that represent the current best practices in an industry. All service sectors typically have them, and healthcare is no exception. One might question how is it that an adherence to industry standards can be a bad thing. It typically is not (unless, of course, they contradict what a doctor is actually seeing in a patient).

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, there are several recognized scenarios where this occurs in healthcare. These include:

  • When a doctor fails to deviate from their initial diagnostic impression
  • When a doctor allows a patient’s demographics (or other external factors) to influence their decisions
  • When a doctor relies to heavily on expert opinion
  • When a doctor issues a diagnoses based primarily on events and conditions they recently witnessed

Identifying a misdiagnosis due to heuristics

Oftentimes the clues to identifying when heuristics may have played a role in a patient’s misdiagnosis are in their medical records. Documentation showing that a doctor’s final diagnosis goes against what a patient’s diagnostic tests show may be an indication that their diagnosis is more of a reflection of their doctor’s own opinion.

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