A personality trait that may help us minimize diagnostic errors

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Category : Medical Rants

I found this article fascinating – The Surprising Personality Trait That Massively Improves Decision-Making, According to Science

The trait is called intellectual humility!

In everyday language, it means the willingness to accept that you might be wrong and to not get defensive when arguments or information that’s unfavorable to your position comes to light.

In medicine, we often have to assume a diagnosis when a patient enters the hospital.  We often assume a diagnosis in outpatient settings.  In both cases, we then should look for confirmatory evidence to either support our assumption or counter our assumption.  The supporting data help us solidify our diagnosis, but too often we minimize evidence against our initial assumption.  There are many heuristics possibility at work here – the mostly commonly cited are premature closure or the anchoring heuristic.

Intellectual humility protects us against these heuristics.

This is not to say that no one has trumpeted the importance of intellectual humility. On the HBR blogs, career coach Mark Bonche recently wrote about how fast learning requires a willingness to admit error, and various business gurus and VCs have long argued that the best kind of thinker is one with “strong opinions weakly held.”

Final advice from the paper’s author:

Some leaders have long understood the importance of “intellectual humility” then, but it’s clear from both the current political climate and plenty of business missteps that not everyone has internalized the value of incorporating a whole lot of humility into your decision making. For those folks, this study might serve as a healthy reminder that you can’t learn if you can’t admit that you might be wrong.

Unfortunately, we physicians sometimes lack intellectual humility.  Perhaps just understanding its importance will help us gain this important trait.

Comments (1)

I am still dealing with this issue 20 months after a health scare. A number of doctors have stated that with my insurance and cooperation they can prove that they have the solution to my health problems and the large regional medical center where I was treated was wrong.

This idea extends down to the therapist who treated me after my health scare as one was very pointed in telling me she knew how to make money in medicine. Another refused to speak to me in the hall as she was not getting paid.

My wife was caught in the middle of an argument when a young doctor told her he knew what I needed, a life changing surgery that he could perform. When my wife asked questions she was pushed aside by the young doctor with the idea he was in charge of my health care.

An older doctor had to physically step in front of the young doctor to ask questions and the decision not to operate was made and I was given time to heal. I realized later that in this system two doctors are always part of the decision making process.

The good news is I have healed and am returning to a normal life. Sometimes less is more.

Steve Lucas

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