What role might heuristics play in a misdiagnosis?

Even with the advances made in diagnostic medicine in recent years, your doctor in Bowling Green still has to deal with some limitations when it comes to diagnosing your condition. So how, then, are they able to offer up a definitive diagnosis? The ideal scenario is that they use the clinical indicators demonstrated in whatever diagnostic tests you undergo, compare that with your description of the symptoms you are experiencing, and consider what established heuristics call for. Heuristics are those standards that have been developed which help to dictate decision making. In many instances, they help steer your doctor towards the correct course of treatment. 

Yet can a reliance on heuristics be a bad thing? Consider the general standards of the industry you work in. If you were to treat every individual case exactly the same (disregarding the potential for any deviation from the norm), would you be able to provide effective service? The same conundrum holds true for doctors. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has actually identified scenarios where an overreliance on heuristics by health care providers can lead to diagnostic errors. These include: 

  • Allowing past experience to bias their opinions
  • Refusing to move off of an initial diagnostic impression
  • Being influenced by subtle cues or collateral information
  • Relying too much on expert opinion

There is nothing wrong with considering the aforementioned heuristics when formulating your diagnosis. It is when your doctor refuses to allow the other factors that should influence their decision making to contradict the opinion that heuristics may have led them to develop that the potential for a misdiagnosis arises. Asking your doctor to explain the reasons behind their conclusions or seeking a second opinion to confirm their diagnosis might indicate whether or not this has occurred. 

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