This week on NPR’s “Fresh Air” radio program is an interesting interview with Dr. Jerome Groopman. Dr. Groopman has recently written a book titled How Doctors Think. The interview is available at the NPR website, but below I have a brief excerpt from the book.
“This book is about what goes on in a doctor’s mind as he or she treats a patient. The idea for it came to me unexpectedly, on a September morning three years ago while I was on rounds with a group of interns, residents, and medical students. I was the attending physician on “general medicine,” meaning that it was my responsibility to guide this team of trainees in its care of patients with a wide variety of clinical problems, not just those in my own specialties of blood diseases, cancer, and AIDS. There were patients on our ward with pneumonia, diabetes, and other common ailments, but there were also some with symptoms that did not readily suggest a diagnosis, or with maladies for which there was a range of possible treatments, where no one therapy was clearly superior to the others.”
“Medical students are taught that the evaluation of a patient should proceed in a discrete, linear way: you first take the patient’s history, then perform a physical examination, order tests, and analyze the results. Only after all the data are compiled should you formulate hypotheses about what might be wrong. These hypotheses should be winnowed by assigning statistical probabilities, based on existing databases, to each symptom, physical abnormality, and laboratory test; then you calculate the likely diagnosis. This is Bayesian analysis, a method of decision-making favored by those who construct algorithms and strictly adhere to evidence-based practice. But, in fact, few if any physicians work with this mathematical paradigm. The physical examination begins with the first visual impression in the waiting room, and with the tactile feedback gained by shaking a person’s hand. Hypotheses about the diagnosis come to a doctor’s mind even before a word of the medical history is spoken. And in cases like Anne’s, of course, the specialist had a diagnosis on the referral form from the internist, confirmed by the multitude of doctors’ notes in her records.”