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"Anchoring" Bias Can Lead to Misdiagnosis

Misdiagnosis occurs all too frequently at California hospitals. In some cases, the medical mistakes are attributable to “anchoring” bias. The term refers to the common human tendency to rely too heavily, or "anchor," on one piece of information when making decisions. For doctors, it can mean relying on the initial diagnosis to the exclusion of other patient data that may suggest something else is going on.

For instance, once a doctor determines that a patient has suffered a stroke, he or she has the tendency to view all other data, including patient complaints, in the context of the initial diagnosis. If the new information doesn’t quite fit, many physicians simply assume that the condition is presenting atypically and do not reconsider their initial diagnosis. As a result, they may fail to conduct additional tests that could lead to the correct diagnosis.

The growing use of electronic medical records also increases the risk of anchoring bias. When a patient shows up at the emergency room, the treating physician can often obtain a full medical history for the patient by clicking a few buttons on a computer. While this information can be helpful, it can also cause the doctor to jump to the wrong conclusion.

For example, if a patient enters the emergency room with complaints of chest pain and trouble breathing, the treating physician may rely on a patient’s history of anxiety to quickly diagnose the symptoms as an anxiety attack. In reality, the patient could be suffering from a range of other medial issues, such as a heart attack or pulmonary embolism. If left untreated, the conditions can result in serious complications and even death.

Finally, the “shift-oriented” structure of modern hospitals can also increase the risk of anchoring bias. When patients are handed off at the end of a shift, the new medical team often simply relies on the patient’s “label” rather than the symptoms that exist at the time. As a result, new symptoms or conditions may not receive the attention they deserve.

If you or someone you love has suffered from misdiagnosis or other medical error, don’t hesitate to contact a San Diego medical negligence lawyer at the Law Offices of Robert Vaage for a free consultation.