How Doctors Think: Two Heads Are Better Than One
My husband came home yesterday with a story about an employee who was misdiagnosed with a back problem. Gary is a tall, once lanky 50-something guy whose stooped posture now betrays pain and significant muscle deterioration. He has the walk and energy level of a 90-year old and, despite weekly therapy, his body seemed to be aging by the minute.
Fortunately for Gary, his wife spoke up to her neurologist at one of her own recent appointments and described his condition. Amazingly, the neurologist offered a diagnosis on the spot that turned out to be spot on! Gary switched doctors and has every reason to hope for full recovery of his old athletic self.
Knowing the work I do, Gary shared this experience with my husband, calling it a “medical error”. A year or so ago I would have agreed, but I think differently now that I’ve read a terrific book by Jerome Groopman, How Doctors Think. Groopman describes how doctors form their professional judgments — exactly how all of us form our ideas about things.
We all have life experiences that shape how we perceive and analyze information. Whether we realize it or not, we are chock full of filters — some would call them biases. For the most part, they tend to serve us well. How else could we sort through the information overload we seem to manage on a daily basis?
Doctors tend to filter patients’ information in the same way. They hear or see a set of symptoms and their minds immediately sort through past history with the same symptoms to come up with a solution or cure.
In Gary’s case, he saw an orthopedic doctor who saw his symptoms through the prism of his own experience with the bones and muscle of the back. His wife’s neurologist analyzed the same set of symptoms through the prism of his specialty – the nervous system that runs through the back. I don’t believe the first doctor made a mistake — he just did not have exactly the right filter for Gary’s problem.
So what’s the moral of this story? Trust yourself, trust your body. If you’re not getting better under one doctor’s care, get another doctor’s brain on your case. Get a third or fourth opinion if necessary. Don’t stop until it feels like you have the right doctor for you with the right solution you need.