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Heuristics in Healthcare

Oct 30, 2018 | Firm News, Medical Malpractice

Most in Indianapolis understand that doctors are human and thus subject to errors in judgment just like everyone else. Such errors are the reason why misdiagnoses rank among the most common medical errors reported in the U.S. (indeed, information shared by CBS News shows that 12 million Americans are misdiagnosed annually). Diagnostic methods in healthcare to have limitations, yet its the reason behind misdiagnoses that often prompts people to take legal action.

Doctors’ decisions are typically prompted by a number of different factors. Among these are heuristics. The word “heuristics” describes general standards or “rules of thumb.” Typically, heuristics are formed from documented evidence and clinical experience, and in the absence of definitive diagnostic evidence, they may be relied on to develop a patient’s diagnosis. Heuristics may often point clinicians in the right direction when determining what is wrong with a patient, yet an overreliance on them could be dangerous.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has identified four scenarios where heuristics can lead to misdiagnoses. These include:

  • When a doctor relies too heavily on an initial diagnostic impression
  • When a doctor places too much emphasis on expert opinion
  • When a doctor allows their decisions to be influenced by recent cases
  • When a doctor allows collateral information to influence a diagnosis

Ultimately, a patient’s clinical indicators should be the primary source of information and reasoning when developing a diagnosis. In each of the aforementioned scenarios, a doctor will often ignore said indicators even when they may seem contrary to heuristic-based opinions. Such actions may certainly be viewed as being negligent, and thus worthy of scrutiny if they result in a misdiagnosis.