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Heuristics in healthcare

People in Norman need only take a look around the clinic during their next visit to their doctors’ offices to see just how far medical science has come in recent years. Yet even with all of these advances, diagnostic errors remain a problem plaguing both the medical community and the general public. Not only are they a common problem, but according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, they are more likely to result in death or disability than any other type of medical error. 

How is it that misdiagnoses are such a problem when doctors and surgeons study so extensively and accumulate so much experience in treating patients? One should remember that despite their expertise, these professionals are still human, and thus subject to errors in judgment. Often these errors may be the result of an over-reliance on heuristics. 

What are heuristics? 

Heuristics refer to the accepted standards in a profession or industry. Nearly all industries have them, and healthcare is no exception. One might wonder how relying on standards can lead to errors. While practice is often what establishes these standards, they can cause harm when clinicians allow them to influence their decisions (rather than considering what an individual’s symptoms tell them). 

Indeed, per the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, heuristics can often contribute to the following issues: 

  • Allowing recent experiences to bias their decisions 
  • Trusting too much in expert opinion 
  • Relying on their initial diagnostic impression 
  • Allowing external factors (such as a patient’s demographics) to influence their decisions 

Coming up with a comprehensive diagnosis 

Each of the aforementioned elements can come into play when coming up with a patient’s diagnosis. However, their application should work in concert with a patient’s symptoms (as well as the results of diagnostic testing) to develop a well-conceived diagnosis.