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How Are Heuristics Problematic in Healthcare?

You visit your doctor in Illinois fully expecting them to pinpoint your exact ailment. Getting the right diagnosis at every initial visit may be an unrealistic expectation given that even the most advanced diagnostic technologies have certain limitations. Yet the hope is that your doctor’s initial diagnosis will at least approximate what is actually wrong with you, and that the many resources at their disposal will quickly yield the correct condition.

Misdiagnoses, however, remain a significant problem in the healthcare industry. When you experience one yourself (along with its harmful consequences), you may rightly question how is it such an error can occur. Oftentimes it may come down to human error.

Heuristics in healthcare

Every industry has its general “rules of thumb” that practitioners subscribe to. Experts call these heuristics. While some may view these as best practices, oftentimes people rely too heavily on them (as opposed to adapting their decisions to specific situations). Indeed, many point to an overreliance on heuristics in healthcare as a possible cause of misdiagnosis. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality lists the following common heuristics observed among clinicians and the potential problems they may lead to:

  • Availability heuristic: Basing decisions primarily on recent experiences
  • Blind obedience: Placing too much emphasis on expert opinion
  • Anchoring heuristic: Not deviating from an initial diagnostic impression
  • Framing effects: Allowing ancillary factors to influence decisions

Did heuristics contribute to your misdiagnosis?

The problem with an overreliance on heuristics is that your doctor may ignore the clinical indicators you demonstrate in favor of their own impressions. When attempting to determine whether heuristics contributed to your misdiagnosis, look for clinical notes implying that your doctor overlooked your described symptoms and/or diagnostic tests and instead came up with their own conclusions.

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