A Harvard Medical School professor says that physicians’ faulty logic can kill
How Doctors Think. By Jerome Groopman, M.D. Houghton Mifflin, 291 pp., $26.
By Janice Harayda
It’s flu season, and that’s bad news for you if you have an obscure disease with flu-like symptoms. Your doctors’ diagnoses might reflect a confirmation bias (a tendency to find what they expect to find), an availability error (a decision based on how easily examples come to mind) or other cognitive flaws that Jerome Groopman describes in this engaging bestseller.
Groopman’s thesis is that a doctor’s state of mind strongly affects clinical decision-making. And many of his examples are eye-opening if paradoxically commonsensical. Do doctors’ friends get better care? Not necessarily, Groopman says. A doctor might hesitate to prescribe a necessary but painful test for a friend. Do doctors favor the sickest patients, who may need their care the most? Actually, they prefer healthy ones. One social psychologist found that “the sickest patients are the least liked by doctors, and that very sick people sense this disaffection,” Groopman writes. Apparently many doctors feel they have worked in vain when a disease resists treatment and stop trying to help.
Much of this is so interesting that you wish this book didn’t reflect biases of its own. One is that it slights mistakes that result from factors other than cognitive flaws, such as fatigue, poor training and inadequate supervision. “Experts studying misguided care have recently concluded that the majority of errors are due to flaws in physician thinking, not technical mistakes,” writes Groopman, a professor at Harvard Medical School and staff writer for The New Yorker.
But when you go to the end notes of his book to look for the source of that hard-to-believe “majority,” you read: “Although the frequency of misdiagnosis has been studied, few researchers have focused on its relationship to physician cognition.” So who are those “experts” who found that most errors result from doctors’ thinking? The notes name only one expert who found such a “majority,” a researcher who had studied “serious errors that led to malpractice claims.” But Groopman says that the majority of all errors result from physicians’ thinking, not the majority of errors that lead to malpractice suits. Either his end notes are incomplete or he misrepresents in the book some of the material he cites in the notes.
At the very least How Doctors Think leaves a different impression of the causes of mistakes than the chapters on medical errors and problem doctors in Atul Gawande’s Complications, a more cogently argued book by another physician who writes for The New Yorker. Gawande quotes from a landmark series of papers in the New England Journal of Medicine that reported that one percent of all hospital admissions involved negligence that prolonged the stay or led to death or disability of the patient. A smaller study of the treatment of cardiac arrests found that “27 of 30 clinicians made an error in using the defibrillator – charging it incorrectly or losing too much time figuring out how to work a particular model.”
Groopman is a bit like a coach who blames the problems in baseball on the character flaws of individual players instead of the culture that produced them. He says that doctors “desperately” need patients to “help them think.” If that’s true, it reflects badly on the entire American system of medical education, training and certification, not just on individual physicians. Clearly many doctors need more than “help” thinking logically – they need to learn how to work the defibrillator.
Best line: “When a patient tells me, ‘I still don’t feel good. I’m still having symptoms,’ I have learned to refrain from replying, ‘Nothing is wrong with you.’ The statement ‘Nothing is wrong with you’ is dangerous on two accounts. First, it denies the fallibility of all physicians. Second, it splits the mind from the body. Because sometimes what is wrong is psychological, not physical. This conclusion, of course, should be reached only after a serious and prolonged search for a physical cause of the patient’s complaint.”
Worst line: Groopman says his book is for people who aren’t physicians “because doctors desperately need patients and their families and friends to help them think.” Isn’t it bad enough that we have all those TV commercials telling us to ask our doctors if we need a certain drug because, basically, they’re too dumb to figure it out on their own? Do we need this kind of smarm from doctors, too? Groopman doesn’t mention that there are 285 doctors for every 100,000 people in the U.S. and, if he’d written his book for doctors, he might make a lot less money.
Recommendatiom? A good but one-sided book. If you’re interested in medical errors, consider reading the chapters called “When Doctors Make Mistakes” and “When Good Doctors Go Bad” in Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (Holt/Metropolitan, 2002) www.gawande.com instead of or in addition to How Doctors Think.
Editor: Eamon Dolan
One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It is also for people who dislike long-winded weasel reviews that are full of facts and plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.