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Medical Negligence Can Result from Bias and Mental Shortcuts

Published on Feb 27, 2020 at 3:04 pm in Medical Malpractice.

Close-up of black and white stethoscope

A growing body of scientific research suggests cognitive biases are impeding physicians’ abilities to treat patients properly. A range of systematic errors in human-decision making is being linked back to the cognitive biases.

According to an article in The New York Times, bias affects how doctors make treatment decisions. This can affect whether patients live or die. While awareness of biases has prompted efforts to reduce them in clinic-decision making, they still have the ability to result in negligence.

Understanding the Concept of Bias

Bias is typically broken down into three components: prejudice, discrimination, and stereotypes. While physicians are supposed to treat all patients the same, those elements have been shown to impact patient treatment and result in improper care.

In the past, racial biases have been well documented. For example, one study found that black patients were less likely to receive pain medication in an emergency room setting than white patients. There is evidence that racial biases among providers have potentially contributed to the racial difference in patient trust in the health care system.

Studies are now showing a multitude of biases patients are suffering from, including a number of cognitive biases. These tend to stem from doctors taking mental shortcuts and relying on old information, instead of thinking through each individual case.

The Effect Cognitive Bias Has on Patients

Cognitive biases influence the way physicians think and treat patients. These biases are generally unconscious, meaning the doctor does not realize they are treating a patient differently. For example, confirmation bias revolves around the tendency to interpret new information in a way that’s favorable to what you already know. Anchoring, another cognitive bias, is the tendency to overly weight an initial piece of information—even if it turns out to not matter.

In some cases, psychologists believe physicians experience bias as an overreaction to recent events. If, for example, a patient experiences an unlikely adverse side effect to a drug, their doctor is less likely to order that same drug for another patient—even if their condition calls for it.

Cognitive bias also has the potential to result in higher spending and worse outcomes for patients giving birth. A study found that when mothers giving birth experienced an adverse event, their obstetrician was more likely to switch delivery modes for the next patient—regardless of what would have been appropriate for their situation.

Examining Left-Digit Bias and Recommended Treatments

As an expansion of the cognitive bias studies, a report published in The New England Journal of Medicine examined signs of a left-digit bias. For people in an everyday setting, the left-digit bias comes into play with how goods are priced. For example, a consumer is more likely to purchase an item at $4.99 than $5.00 because their mind rounds down to the left-most digit.

This left-digit bias plays a role in medicine, as well. Based on the study, it was hypothesized that doctors recommend different treatments more often based on a patient’s age—especially the first number. When looking at patients who had a heart attack in the weeks leading up to their 80th birthday versus those who had recently turned 80, physicians were less likely to perform coronary artery bypass surgeries on the “older” patients. As a result, the slightly younger patients were more likely to undergo surgery and less likely to die within 30 days of diagnosis.

Other studies have also confirmed that doctors are overly responsive to patient age when evaluating and diagnosing an illness. There’s also speculation that left-digit affects clinical decisions.

The Bigger Impact of Cognitive Bias and Mental Shortcuts

It’s thought that physician bias affects more than treatment decisions. In fact, it has the potential to shape the profession as a whole. A recent study analyzed gender bias in surgeon referrals. It found that when a female surgeon’s patient dies, the physician who made the original referral is less likely to send patients to female surgeons at all in the future. However, no such decline was found for male surgeons after a patient’s death.

While the medical community is aware of cognitive bias and has prompted efforts to reduce them in clinical decision-making, it doesn’t change the fact that patients have already suffered. Bias is not only expensive; it has cost some their lives.

Medical malpractice law is becoming increasingly complex with the idea of biases playing a role in hospital and doctor errors. If you’ve been injured by a physician, our lawyers can examine your situation and determine the cause of your injuries. Because of the challenges that come with these types of cases, it’s best to get in touch with us as soon as possible. For more information, contact us today.

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