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To improve health outcomes, physicians need to steer clear of their biases

Written by Diane Archer

Each and every one of us–including our physicians–has a particular perspective through which we see the world. Consequently, we often jump to conclusions—about people, information, products, and services. It’s human nature. To improve health outcomes, physicians need to steer clear of their biases.

Don’t assume that doctors are somehow different from everyone else. Anupam Jena and Andrew Olenski report for The New York Times on physicians’ biased behavior. They explain that if physicians are to best serve their patients, their myriad biases must be understood and addressed.

The data show that physicians exhibit racial and other biases that affect the care you get. These biases can mean that you don’t get the care you need. Biases can lead to errors in the physicians’ decision-making

Like everyone, physicians have confirmation and anchoring biases. Confirmation bias leads them to understand new information in ways that reinforce the information they already believe. Anchoring bias leads them to give greater weight to the first information they learn, for no good reason. With anchoring bias, if you first see one price for a product that’s a lot higher than another, you’ll think the second product is a good buy; but if you had seen an even lower price for the product first, then the second product would appear expensive.

As a result of these biases, physicians will treat patients inconsistently, sometimes with harmful consequences. For example, if you have a bad side effect from a drug, a doctor might not prescribe that drug again. But, your side effect might be particular to you, and the drug might be beneficial to others.

Physicians sometimes exhibit gender biases as well. For example, a physician will stop referring patients to female physicians because one patient died who had been treated by a female surgeon.

On top of these biases, physicians may exhibit left digit bias or bias stemming from the first number the physicians see. Left-digit bias might lead you more often to buy products priced at $3.99 than at 4.00. Left-digit bias might lead physicians to treat 80-year old patients differently than patients 79 and nine months, with significant consequence to their patients’ well-being.

Left-digit bias has also been shown to lead physicians to interpret test results beginning with a 9 differently than test results beginning with a ten, even when there is no meaningful difference.

The question becomes how can doctors overcome these biases? Decision-support tools could be helpful in nudging doctors away from their biases and towards evidence-based clinical decisions. You have a role to play as well. You can and should question your doctors’ treatment decisions. For example, if your doctor proposes a particular test for you, you might ask whether she proposes the same test to younger patients and what other tests are available.

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