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Cognitive Bias in Medical Diagnoses

Cognitive bias is a common characteristic of human psychology. The idea is that people like to be right, and will sometimes perceive information in a way that confirms their existing ideas about the state of things, when the objective truth may be something different. Cognitive bias can influence behavior in all sorts of circumstances, many of which pose little risk of harm. But when a medical diagnosis is made in reliance on perceptions that are clouded by cognitive bias the outcome for patients can be life threatening. Cognitive bias in the medical profession is a known problem. The bias itself can come from many sources. A doctor may have a disposition against diagnosing serious illnesses and will prefer to diagnose milder alternatives: interpreting heart failure as indigestion. Or a doctor may concentrate on a specialty that unwittingly blocks out alternatives: a heart surgeon who recommends a pace maker for a patient with an endocrine imbalance. People who tend to think in biased ways can learn to overcome them. Members of the medical profession have a high ethical obligation to recognize their own biases and adapt their diagnostic approaches to account for them. But to actively address a bias it’s first necessary to know about it and understand how it works. That can be difficult even for people who have a profound need to do it. As a consequence, cognitive bias can introduce significant inaccuracies into medical diagnoses. At the point of treatment a patient should be on guard against signs that a particular approach is being taken not because it is the right one but because it is the one that the doctor prefers out of what may be an unconscious motive. Patients also need to be careful about avoiding cognitive biases of their own: it may be tempting to prefer the heartburn diagnosis, but if it means ignoring a blocked artery the risk of death quickly increases. If a medical diagnosis leads to a patient’s serious injury or death the patient or the patient’s next of kin may have the option of suing for professional negligence. To prevail a professional negligence lawsuit must prove that the treating doctor failed to use reasonable care ordinarily used under similar circumstances by similarly trained and experienced providers of health care. NRS 41A.015. In the course of litigation it may be revealed that the misdiagnosis arose from bad judgement that might be traced back to an instance of cognitive bias. Expert testimony can be used to establish the extent to which the misdiagnosis was far enough out of the norm to constitute negligence. For more than 45 years the law firm of Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez has represented injured clients in professional negligence cases. If you or a loved one has suffered harm as a consequence of medical misdiagnosis, please call us today for a free attorney consultation. We can be reached at 702-388-4476 or through our contact page.