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Problematic trends with heuristics in healthcare

Most people in New Jersey place a great deal of confidence in their doctors and surgeons. In many cases, a clinician’s actions (supported by their experience and knowledge) justify that confidence. However, misdiagnoses remain one of the most prevalent problems facing the healthcare industry. Indeed, according to information shared by the American Association of Retired Persons, doctors may misdiagnose as many as 20% of all serious medical conditions.

Many may question how (with all of the advances made in diagnostic science in recent years) clinicians could misdiagnose patients at all. In many cases, the supposed standards or perceived “best practices” some doctors and surgeons follow may lead them astray.

On overreliance on heuristics

Heuristics describe common standards and informal rules present in many professions (including healthcare). Oftentimes, heuristics arise from industry trends; in others, clinicians develop them through their own experience. While they can support one’s clinical efforts, an overreliance on them may prove troublesome.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality points out the certain heuristics may actually contribute to the potential for misdiagnoses. These include:

  • Allowing external factors (such as a patient’s demographics) to influence opinions
  • Permitting recent experiences to bias opinions
  • Refusing to deviate from an initial diagnostic impressions
  • Relying too heavily on expert opinion

Documentation detailing a misdiagnosis

Many may question how they might be able to determine whether a doctor’s overreliance on heuristics resulted in a misdiagnosis. A thorough review of one’s medical record may reveal this. Should a doctor’s documentation imply any of the aforementioned biases, then one might argue that defaulting to them (rather than basing an opinion on a description of symptoms or diagnostic test results) may constitute negligence.


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New Jersey State Bar Association 1899