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‘Inattentional blindness’ may prevent accurate cancer diagnosis

From minor oversights to major mistakes, millions of Americans receive a misdiagnosis each year.

Whether underestimating the importance of key symptoms or failing to follow through with appropriate diagnostic tests, when a health care professional makes a judgment error, it may have a profound impact on a patient’s physical, emotional and financial wellbeing.

In some cases, even an experienced practitioner may miss important signs of disease. One recent study found that a psychological phenomenon known as ‘inattentional blindness’ may lead some radiologists to overlook obvious evidence.

How does inattentional blindness affect diagnosis?

Inattentional blindness happens when an individual focused on a highly specific task overlooks obvious visual information that he or she may not have been looking for.

A recent psychological study demonstrated how this type of ‘blindness’ may negatively impact radiologists’ ability to reliably identify abnormalities. In the study, researchers asked a group of radiology technicians to analyze a chest CT scan and identify signs of lung cancer.

However, perhaps because the technicians were looking specifically for lung cancer, about two-thirds of the study’s participants missed a significant breast mass in the same scan. One-third of participants also overlooked an abnormal lymph node.

How might a misdiagnosis affect patient health?

Making an accurate diagnosis is especially important with progressive and often aggressive diseases like cancer. Failure to recognize signs of this potentially deadly condition may prevent a patient from seeking interventive care early, which may result in expensive and invasive treatments, overwhelming medical costs and irreparable harm to long-term health.