Cognition and error in medicine

Elia F., Aprà F., Verhovez A., and Crupi V., “First, know thyself”: Cognition and error in medicine, 53 (2016): 169-175.


Abstract. Although error is an integral part of the world of medicine, physicians have always been little inclined to take into account their own mistakes and the extraordinary technological progress observed in the last decades does not seem to have resulted in a significant reduction in the percentage of diagnostic errors. The failure in the reduction in diagnostic errors, notwithstanding the considerable investment in human and economic resources, has paved the way to new strategies which were made available by the development of cognitive psychology, the branch of psychology that aims at understanding the mechanisms of human reasoning. This new approach led us to realize that we are not fully rational agents able to take decisions on the basis of logical and probabilistically appropriate evaluations. In us, two different and mostly independent modes of reasoning coexist: a fast or non-analytical reasoning, which tends to be largely automatic and fast-reactive, and a slow or analytical reasoning, which permits to give rationally founded answers. One of the features of the fast mode of reasoning is the employment of standardized rules, termed ‘‘heuristics.’’ Heuristics lead physicians to correct choices in a large percentage of cases. Unfortu- nately, cases exist wherein the heuristic triggered fails to fit the target problem, so that the fast mode of reasoning can lead us to unreflectively perform actions exposing us and others to variable degrees of risk. Cognitive errors arise as a result of these cases. Our review illustrates how cognitive errors can cause diagnostic problems in clinical practice.





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