Lessons from “How Doctors Think” for Hospital Operations

Dr. Jerome Groopman is the Chair of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School and staff writer for the New Yorker. His 2007 book How Doctors Think seeks to inform lay readers through a collection of medical case studies about the training that physician receive and the thought process through which they gather information and formulate the diagnosis. Most importantly, however, the book emphasizes the cases in which the logical process through which the diagnosis is developed fails and the physician misdiagnoses the patient and puts their life in danger. Sometimes the diagnostic process repeatedly fails to correctly identify a condition across multiple physicians. How Doctors Think begins by presenting the case of Anne Dodge who had been misdiagnosed for fifteen years by psychiatrists, internists and dietitians as suffering from bulimia and irritable bowel syndrome until a gastroenterologist finally identified celiac disease as the cause of her weight loss. Dr. Groopman also recounts how three renowned Boston-area surgeons had misdiagnosed the hand pain he was experiencing, including one diagnosis that was not a real medical condition (pg. 170). Diagnostic errors like these provide a stark contrast to the idealistic public image of physicians as precise and evidence based practitioners.

The book argues that most of these errors are not due to malice or incompetence, but are a natural byproduct of the mental heuristics that physicians must use to treat patients in a timely and efficient manner. Although physicians are trained in medical schools to carefully record the patient’s narrative and consider all possible options, the operational realities of the healthcare environment such as time-consuming electronic medical records and decreasing appointment durations force physicians to increasingly rely on shortcuts that are vulnerable to cognitive errors.

Dr. Groopman concludes by urging patients to participate more in the diagnostic process by asking physicians key questions such as “Are there any other possible causes?” and “Does any of the evidence not match the diagnosis?” The purpose of these questions is to force the physician out of their diagnostic autopilot mode and give them a chance to recognize any logical fallacies they may have committed. This collaboration would ideally improve physician decision making, decrease the frequency of medical errors, and improve patient outcomes.

Implications

The transition of payment systems from fee-for-service to pay-for-performance through programs like DSRIP and MACRA will inevitably put pressure on providers to standardize processes in order to reduce variability and improve population health outcomes. How Doctors Think reveals the significant variability that exists in physician decision making caused by individual practice preferences and errors during diagnosis, which is a major challenge for large healthcare organizations trying to meet their performance targets. Because “as many as 15 percent of all diagnoses are inaccurate” (p.24), organizations that can control and reduce this variability will be increasingly rewarded by programs such as DSRIP for standardizing their care. Safety net hospital are more vulnerable to such variation because they are more likely to face the resource constraints that force physicians to reduce their time with patients, which Dr. Groopman identifies as a major cause of diagnostic error. Fortunately analyzing the types of errors that physicians make provides a framework to understand how physician processes need to be adjusted and what changes can be made in the organization to reduce the occurrence of these errors. It is therefore recommended that all providers, but especially safety net hospitals, address the problems presented in How Doctors Think by implementing three operational reforms: communication standardization, diagnosis standardization, and treatment standardization.

 Communication Standardization

Dr. Groopman emphasizes that good medicine relies on effective communication between the patient and physician. This requires the standardization of physician’s communication practices to ensure that they are obtaining as much information as possible from the patient.

Physicians should be trained to ask open-ended questions when interviewing patients, which avoids leading the patient towards a diagnosis that the physician is already thinking of, and “maximizes the opportunity for a doctor to hear new information” (p.18). The physicians should also be able to interview the patients quietly and uninterrupted, as distractions can cause the physician to miss important information (pg. 75). When the patient makes a statement that conflicts with the physician’s clinical judgement, the physician should make an effort to not dismiss the patient (pg.264). To maximize trust, the physicians must explain the condition and its risks in a clear manner, but also be prepared to spend more time with the patient when it is clear to the physician that the patient is still nervous or uncertain (pg. 88). Accordingly, the hospital should make it easy for physicians to extend their time with the patient or to schedule a follow-up appointment. Physicians should also explain why they are performing any tests and specifically what they are looking for (pg. 172) to engage the patient and give them a chance to express their own opinions and concerns. Finally, the physician needs to clearly explain all possible outcomes, the positive and negative features associated with those outcomes, and the likelihood of those outcomes (pg. 173) to enable patients to make the choices most consistent with their preferences. This discussion should always be framed within the context of the condition to minimize the risk of patients fearing the treatment’s side-effects more than the disease itself (pg. 246).

Diagnosis Standardization

Safety net hospitals should implement a diagnostic checklist that physicians must review at the end of each case to ensure that they are not committing a logical fallacy in their diagnosis. Common errors that physicians make include:

  1. Representativeness – assume the symptoms correspond to a standard case (pg. 44)
  2. Availability – diagnosis affected by ease with which options come to mind (pg. 64)
  3. Search satisficing – stop searching for problems once you find one diagnosis (pg. 169)
  4. Vertical line failure – thinking inside the box when data and symptoms disagree (pg.171)

To avoid these logical failures, after the physician decides on a diagnosis they should be required to go through the following questions that Dr. Groopman recommends in the epilogue of How Doctors Think:

  1. What else could it be?
  2. Is there anything that doesn’t fit?
  3. Is it possible there’s more than one problem?
  4. What is the patient worried about?
  5. Review the patient’s story from the beginning.

In addition, patients should be encouraged to ask these questions and should be trained to do so through informational materials available to them in waiting areas and posters around the hospital. The benefit of this strategy is that it engages the patient in their health and prevents the physician from ignoring the checklist by going through it carelessly to save time.

Finally, this diagnosis verification process can be further enhanced by implementing systems of physician peer monitoring, such as radiologists reviewing a sample of each other’s slides and discussing the diagnoses that are found to be incorrect (pg. 188). This allows physicians to identify mistakes in a safe environment and collectively improve their skills. The knowledge that they are being peer reviewed also encourages physicians to more careful in their decision making.

Treatment Standardization

Treatment protocols should be standardized across physicians practicing in safety net hospitals to reduce variation and ensure equity in the treatment that patients receive. Dr. Groopman highlights how two very different procedures can be believed to be the optimal treatment protocol at the same time simply because they are both championed by a prominent physician who “did it that way” (pg. 163). Physicians are also susceptible to influence from the industry to prefer treatment plans based on non-clinical incentives that may not put the patient’s interests at the forefront, which may be the case with spinal fusion surgeries (pg. 228). As much as possible, treatment protocols should be directly based on the available clinical evidence and physicians practicing at the safety net hospital should be expected to conform to them. This has the benefits of reducing variability, increasing the rate of physicians’ expertise gain, increasing NYC Health + Hospital’s ability to negotiate with insurers, and makes it easier to explain and justify treatment plans to patients.

Conclusion

Although How Doctors Think was published in 2007, experience with the healthcare system today quickly reveals that few of the lessons this book contains have been addressed. In fact, many providers have made the situation worse by continuing to put physicians under time-pressure without developing the physician workflows necessary to maximize patient-physician interactions or redesigning organizational processes to improve diagnostic quality. This fundamental gap in understanding between management and physicians demonstrates why How Doctors Think should be required reading for healthcare administrators.

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