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The problems presented by heuristics

Brooklyn residents go to area hospitals and healthcare clinics expected to get answers to the questions they have about the injuries and illnesses afflicting them. Unfortunately, statistics show that doctors are not always able to provide them. According to research data shared by CBS News, 12 million people (roughly 1 out of 20 adult patients) are misdiagnosed by American healthcare providers each year. This prompts the question of what may be causing this high rate of misdiagnoses? 

The first thing that should be observed is that despite the technological and scientific advances seen in healthcare in recent years, there are still limitations to diagnostic medicine. Doctors often are only provided with their patients' descriptions of their signs and symptoms along with certain diagnostic studies in order to develop a clinical opinion. It is at that point that their experience and expertise must take over. However, often those factors can lead them in the wrong direction. 

Heuristics are general rules or standards that are often relied upon to form opinions. They are widely used in healthcare as providers will often to look to them to support their opinions. Yet over-reliance on heuristics may be problematic. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality lists the following scenarios as cases where heuristics could lead to cognitive bias: 

  • Basing decisions on past experiences 
  • Basing decisions largely on initial diagnostic impressions
  • Basing decisions off of bias generated by subtle cues and collateral information
  • Basing decisions off of expert opinion

The heuristics rising from these factors can be useful when considered in conjunction with clinical findings. Yet when doctors allow them to drive their decision-making despite what diagnostic tests might be showing them, one might define such actions as being negligent

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