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Defining how heuristics can negatively impact healthcare

As healthcare providers in Providence County are only human, they are subject to judgment errors just like everyone else. The outcomes of their errors, however, are often tragic. Indeed, information shared by Johns Hopkins Medicine shows medical errors to be the third highest cause of death in the U.S.

One of the more common causes of medical errors may be the fact that doctors often rely heavily on “heuristics” when delivering care. Heuristics are guidelines that are commonly accepted in the medical community that doctors often use during the diagnostic process. They are often based on a number of different factors. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality lists the following four factors as being the most common for forming heuristics in healthcare:

  •          Recent experience
  •          Initial diagnostic impressions
  •          Collateral information
  •          Expert opinions

An example of a case based on heuristics may be a patient that presents with abdominal cramps. A doctor relying primarily on recent experience might automatically assign a diagnosis of gastrointestinal disease given that he or she had seen several patients with the same problem recently. Should he or she ignore diagnostic tests that seem to disprove that diagnosis, then he or she is relying too heavily on his or her initial diagnostic impression. If the patients also admits to having an alcohol dependency, the doctor may then allow such information to lead him to believe that the patient is suffering from withdrawal. Or, if he or she looks to information recently read in a medical journal to come to a diagnosis rather than what testing indicates, the he or she is being swayed by expert opinion.

While heuristics can be helpful in indicating where a provider should go with a patient’s care, they should not be the sole basis of a diagnosis.


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