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How Doctors Think Hardcover – Mar 19 2007


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; None edition (March 19 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618610030
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618610037
  • Product Dimensions: 2.6 x 16.9 x 23.1 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 567 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #203,689 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents


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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Patrick R. Callas on Aug. 23 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Groopman is a good storyteller. A very insightful book with engaging cases. The book may be unnecessarily long and parts slow for some readers. However, I think it is critical reading for all patients and doctors. Though perhaps a shortened or key points version (or section) should exist.
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By L. Vu on Oct. 27 2011
Format: Paperback
I thoroughly enjoyed every moment reading this book. The advice to both doctors and patients are very practical and insightful.
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Amazon.com: 289 reviews
311 of 344 people found the following review helpful
A Disappointment June 10 2007
By A Family Physician - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Jerome Groopman's "How Doctors Think" has been given generally favorable reviews in the lay press and many readers have echoed that praise. From this physician's point of view, the book is a disappointment.

On the positive side, Dr. Groopman's book is an attempt to bring to light some issues surrounding errors in medicine, a topic that is not discussed often enough in the medical and general literature. He discusses how physicians can make cognitive errors when they attempt distill an array of scattered bits of information in order to arrive at a conclusion to the question: what condition is this patient suffering from? He also tries to identify forces in the current American medical system that undermine a physician's ability to think more broadly and deeply about a patient's illness. His limited efforts in these areas can be a helpful starting point for patients, medical students, and physicians who are beginning to grapple with a simple fact: doctors are human, and they make mistakes.

On the negative side, Dr. Groopman offers little in the way of concrete suggestions for clinicians to fix the problems he identifies. He indicates the current system is driving physicians to see more patients in less time, but offers no realistic proposals for doctors or patients that would allow for a less hurried atmosphere. He makes a number of suggestions on how physicians can think more clearly: think outside the box, be wary of "going with your gut", don't judge a patient by her outward appearance, be prepared in your mind for the atypical patient, consider the possibility of more than one diagnosis, and other pearls of wisdom. While they are good recommendations, they fall far short of a concrete program for improving one's diagnostic skills and thought processes. His only idea for improving medical training seems to be to push clinicians to ask themselves the above questions more often. If this was new, it would be worthy of all the praise that has been heaped on this book, but it honestly is not very new, and is simply a variation on the same ideas of how to better train clinicians that we have been working with since at least the 1970s. Given the current state of the American medical system, these old ideas clearly aren't enough, and Dr. Groopman's recommendations that we continue this strategy, only with more emphasis than before, leaves the reader desiring useful solutions feeling like he has been pushed out into the stream with only a toothpick for a paddle.

Perhaps a physician's yearning for some answers from Dr. Groopman is asking too much. But even from a patient's point of view, given the harrowing stories that lead up to his epilogue, the few extra questions he suggests patients use to push the physician ("Is it possible I have more than one problem?") seem unimpressive. Given the severity of time constraints that Groopman very correctly describes, his dearth of suggestions for patients to assist their doctors and work as a team to make the most of their short time together makes this book of only limited value for the non-physician as well.

One of the great shames of the book is that, despite his clearly delineating the problems physicians face, Dr. Groopman rejects the modern tools that have been developed to aid physicians in diagnosis: evidence-based medicine, clinical algorithms, and practice guidelines. He glibly dismisses these tools again and again, arguing they "constrain" a doctor's thinking and fail "when symptoms are vague... or when test results are inexact." He goes at length to describe one oncology fellow using a particular hematology scoring system to make a poor choice of a treatment plan for a particular patient. Yet the text makes clear the fellow was applying the scoring system incorrectly. Dismissing diagnostic tools because some people misuse them is like telling someone a wrench is not a useful tool for anything because someone once used a wrench to hammer in a nail. Diagnostic tools and practice guidelines, when used in a measured way, can help physicians accurately diagnose many patients without subjecting them to a punishing series of unnecessary diagnostic procedures. Evidence-based medicine helps us determine what works and, perhaps even more importantly, what doesn't. Instead of a balanced discussion of the benefits and limitations of such diagnostic aids, he simply throws the baby out with the bath water.

The most insidious aspect of the book is the underlying suggestion that when a patient does not get a swift, accurate diagnosis of what ails them, it can always be traced back to some logical or other intellectual error on the part of the physician. The fact is some conditions will, for the foreseeable future, elude our best efforts to diagnose them. He brings up an example of a man with chest pain who was sent home from the ER, but then had a heart attack several hours later. In truth, we cannot differentiate all patients with cardiac chest pain from those without cardiac chest pain with 100% accuracy. This is never stated in the text, and only briefly mentioned in the chapter notes buried at the end of the book. Right now, somewhere in America, even with the best tests and the best diagnostician at the bedside, someone with chest pain will be sent home from the ER, only to have a heart attack a short time later. While Dr. Groopman goes on at length to humanize the patients he writes about, his overall argument dehumanizes physicians, holding them up to standards of accuracy that our current body of knowledge cannot support.

Even if it isn't providing many useful solutions, this book is at least raising some important questions. Take this book with a grain of salt (and perhaps even two tablets of aspirin). It is encouraging that we are openly discussing the subject of errors in medicine. It would be a great shame, though, if this book were the last word on the subject.
153 of 170 people found the following review helpful
"As many as 15 percent of all diagnoses are inaccurate...a distressingly high rate of misdiagnosis." March 24 2007
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This alarming statistic introduces Dr. Jerome Groopman's compelling analysis of how doctors think--and what this means for patients seeking diagnoses. Groopman is curious to discover how one doctor misses a diagnosis which another doctor gets. Interviewing specialists in different fields, he analyzes the ways they approach patients, how they gather information, how much they may credit or discredit the previous medical histories and diagnoses of these patients, how they deal with symptoms which may not fit a particular diagnosis, and how they arrive at a final diagnosis.

Throughout, he considers the doctors' time constraints, the pressures on them to see a certain number of patients each day, the limitations on tests which are imposed by insurance companies or by hospitals themselves, and the many options for treating a single disease. He is sympathetic, both toward the patient and the physician, and, because he himself has had medical problems, he provides insights from his own experience to show how physicians (and patients) think.

Case histories abound, beginning with the 82-pound woman, whose celiac disease was not diagnosed for fifteen years. Here Groopman analyzes the uses and misuses of clinical decision trees and algorithms used by many doctors and hospitals to assess probabilities and make decision-making more efficient. Sometimes, however, it is necessary for a doctor to depart from the algorithm and obey intuition. Recognizing when the physician is "winging it"--depending too much on intuition and too little on evidence--is a challenge for both patients and other physicians. Ultimately, Groopman focuses on language as the key to diagnosis, showing that when patients and physicians can communicate and truly share information, they have a better chance to come to correct diagnoses and appropriate treatments.

The success of Groopman's book attests to the need for discussion of these issues, but I am not sure Groopman realizes the difficulty patients have in finding ideal doctors whose personalities, thinking, and communication styles are compatible with their own. Most of us are referred to specialists by our primary care physicians (some of whom we see only once a year and do not know well), and it is not possible to interview several specialists to find the one most compatible. We accept the appointment our primary care physician has set up for us, often with the specialist who has the earliest available appointment. Patients with urgent problems may have fewer choices than Groopman seems to think they have. Though we all search for the ideal, ultimately we must hope that our own diagnoses are not among the "problem fifteen percent." (4.5 stars) n Mary Whipple
63 of 68 people found the following review helpful
An Outstanding Analysis, But Only Part of the Problem May 27 2007
By Dr. Richard G. Petty - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Most doctors are highly educated, hard working people. They may sometimes get a bit tetchy because they overwhelmed by the demands made on them, but most of the time they do their best. Yet in our blame culture there are places in America where you can't get a specialist to treat you: they have all been driven out of business by lawyers representing unhappy clients. The question of why this has come to pass has occupied the minds of the American medical profession for three decades.

For more than a decade, Groopman's trenchant analyses have always been illuminating, and he has a rare gift for communicating them.

This is one of the best books that he has written, about one of the issues that may lead to medical errors: simply not thinking well. It is a very real factor. We all - and not just doctors - jump to conclusions; believe what others tell us and trust the authority of "experts." Clinicians bring a bundle of pre-conceived ideas to the table every time that they see a patient. If that have just seen someone with gastric reflux, they are more likely to think that the next patient with similar symptoms has the same thing, and miss his heart disease. And woe betides the person who has become the "authority" on a particular illness: everyone coming through his or her door will have some weird variant of the disease. As Abraham Maslow once said, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." To that we have to add that not all sets of symptoms fall neatly into a diagnostic box. That uncertainty can cause doctors and their patients to come unglued. Sometimes when doctors disagree it is based not on facts, but on different interpretations of this uncertainty.

On this one topic the book is very good as far as it goes, thought I do think that the analysis is incomplete.

I have taught medical students and doctors on five continents, and this book does not address some of the very marked geographic differences in medical practice. While I think that the book is terrific, let me point out some of the ways in which it is "Americano-centric."

The first point is that the evidence base in medicine is like an inverted pyramid: a huge amount of practice is still based on a fairly small amount of empirical data. As a result doctors often do not know want they do not know. They may have been shown how to do a procedure without being told that there is no evidence that it works. As an example, few surgical procedures have ever been subjected to a formal clinical trial. Although medical schools are trying to turn out medical scientists, many do not have the time or the inclination to be scientific in their offices. In day-to-day practice doctors often use fairly basic and sometimes flawed reasoning. A good example would be hormone replacement therapy. It seemed a thoroughly good idea. What could be better than re-establishing hormonal balance? In practice it may have caused a great many problems. Medicine is littered with examples of things that seemed like a good idea but were not. Therapeutic blood letting contributed to the death of George Washington, and the only psychiatrist ever to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine got his award for taking people with cerebral syphilis and infecting them with malaria. The structure of American medicine does not support the person who questions: consensus guidelines and "standards of care" make questioning, innovation and freedom very difficult. A strange irony in a country founded on all three.

The second major factor in the United States - far more than the rest of the world - is the practice of defensive medicine: doctors have to do a great many procedures to try and protect themselves against litigation. This is having a grievous effect not only on costs, but also on the ways in which doctors and patients can interact.

Third is the problem of demand for and entitlement to healthcare. We do not have enough money for anything: but what is enough if the demand for healthcare continues to grow as we expect? And if people are being told that it is their right to live to be a hundred in the body of a twenty year-old? Much of the money is directed in questionable directions. There are some quite well known statistics: twelve billion dollars a year spent on cosmetic surgery, at a time when almost 40 million people have no health insurance. There are some horrendous problems with socialized medicine, but most European countries have at least started the debate about what can be offered. Should someone aged 100 have a heart transplant? Everyone has his or her own view about that one, but it is a debate that we need to have in the United States.

Fourth is the impact of money on the directions chosen by medical students and doctors starting their careers. Most freshly minted doctors in the United States have spent a fortune on their education, so they are drawn to specialties in which they can make the most money to pay back their loans. In family medicine and psychiatry, even the best programs are having trouble filling their residency training programs. Many young doctors are interested in these fields, but they could die of old age before they pay off their loans.

Fifth is the problem of information. It is hard for most busy doctors in the United States to keep up to date on the latest research, and many are rusty on the mechanics of how to interpret data. So much of their information comes from pharmaceutical companies. Many of the most influential studies have been conducted by pharmaceutical companies, simply because they have the resources. But there have been times when data has therefore appeared suspect. Industry is not evil, but companies certainly hope that their studies will turn out a certain way, and the outcome of any study depends on the questions asked and the way in which the data is analyzed. And like any collection of people, it is easy to fall into a kind of groupthink. There are countless examples of highly intelligent individuals who all missed the wood for the leaves. "Our product is the best there's ever been, and we are all quite sure that the stories about side effects are just a bit of "noise" created by our competitors." That topic alone could provide much grist for Dr. Groopman's mill.

Another related problem is that many scientists are now also setting up companies to try and profit from the discoveries that they have made in academia. Most are working from the highest motives, but sometimes there are worries about impartiality. So once again, the unsuspecting physician may add data to the diagnostic mix without knowing its provenance. There have recently been a number of high profile examples of that.

It could well be that Groopman will cover all of these points and more in his next book, and I can, of course, be accused of criticizing him for not writing the book that "I" wanted!

This is a book that should be read by every doctor and patient in America.

It is also good to know that there are other ways of thinking about some of the problems before us.

Very highly recommended.
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
So So July 14 2007
By R. Albin - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book is essentially a collection of Groopman's New Yorker pieces. While most of these essays focus on diagnostic error, some of the essays and parts of a majority discuss topics such as physician-patient relations and the impact of financial incentives on practice. The recurrant theme is what Groopman refers to as cognitive errors in diagnosis. Groopman provides a series of well written vignettes that illustrate a number of pitfalls in diagnosis. Groopman is highlighting a significant problem and one that deserves public discussion.
This is not, however, a systematic discussion of these issues. For example, what types of the cognitive errors described by Groopman are the most common? What factors predispose physicians to these errors? Are some specialties more prone to different kinds of errors? Groopman doesn't provide any information that might be useful either for physicians and patients in reducing the frequency of such errors.
While Groopman may not have seen his task as necessitating recommendations to improve the present situation, the lack of serious discussion about improving diagnosis is a serious defect. All Groopman has to offer are nostrums about the requirement to listen to patients and that patients should forward in engaging their physicians with questions.
Even more disappointing is Groopman's attitude towards the most serious effort to rectify this kind of problem, the evidence-based medicine movement. For example, Groopman makes several dismissive remarks about the introduction of Bayesian reasoning in diagnosis and management. This is misunderstanding of the role of Bayesian analysis. Despite what Groopman writes, there is nothing novel about Bayesian reasoning in medicine. Bayesian reasoning is actually implicit in a great deal of traditional diagnostic thinking. Formal Bayesian analysis is an effort, like much evidence based medicine, to make implicit assumptions explicit and then subject them to critical analysis. The evidence based evidence movement is an effort to make physicians self-critical about what they do on a day to day basis. This is precisely what Groopman claims is needed in clinical practice but he seems intent on disparaging the only viable path to obtaining the result he thinks is needed.
The only alternative is to retreat to some form of traditional authoritarianism.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Excelllent investigation inside the minds of doctors May 15 2007
By Gaetan Lion - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a well written and very informative book on how doctors arrive at a diagnostics. Groopman, a doctor, acknowledges that 20% of diagnostics are incorrect. He explains why this happens by interviewing various medical experts. These describe how they arrive at diagnostic decisions and how they have made errors during their career.

From reading this book, you get that the main reason doctors make errors is time constraint. In our productivity driven health care system, doctors don't have the time to cogitate the potential diagnostic of patients' illnesses. Additionally, human physiology is incredibly complex. Each patient is unique and reacts differently to his environment, and treatment. Thus, medicine is a science of rules but with more exceptions than rules. Also as an offshoot of cost containments, doctors are discouraged to order more tests than is viewed as necessary by the health insurers. As a result, doctors make complex decisions with limited time and information. This combination of factors easily explains the 20% error rate.

A doctors' thinking mode diverges much from his medical training. In medical school doctors are taught to crack complex disease diagnostics following deductive reasoning. They are given written data on a patient, and they arrive at a diagnostic within 20 to 30 minutes of thorough analytical deliberation. However, in the real world they typically arrive at a diagnostic within 30 seconds. They don't think at all in a slow deductive reasoning mode as they were trained. Instead, they think in an intuitive light speed pattern recognition mode that immediately zeroes in on two or three potential diagnostics. Within the 30 seconds, they narrowed it down to one. Their light speed pattern recognition thinking reflects two things: first, the chronic time pressure they work under (they don't have 30 minutes to deliberate); and second, how they gather information in the real world. The physical appearance, body language, communication style of the patient will give them a ton of qualitative information that they don't get when cracking a diagnostic in med school using just data.

The author analyzes with his interviewees the different cognitive errors doctors make. A common one is the commission bias as doctors are prone to be decisive and action oriented. A surgeon will operate because that's what he does. Sometimes, doing nothing is the best policy (doing no harm). But, that's perceived as incompetent by both patients and doctors. Another prevalent error is "diagnostic momentum" where the very first diagnostic delivered by the primary care physician sends all following specialists taking care of the patient down the wrong path. Another interesting one is the "zebra retreat" where a doctor does not dare to investigate further a situation because his hypothesis represents a wild outlier (a zebra); Instead, the doctor falls back into another comfortable error "satisfaction of search" where the unrevised diagnostic fits pretty well allowing him to move forward even though it is the wrong one. The "availability error" is what is most available in a doctor's mind based on recent experience and association with a similar case. It plays into the doctor's pattern recognition mode. The author mentions many other interesting ones that are common to other professional fields.

In chapter 8, the author indicates that technology is not so helpful. The diagnostic error rates associated with the interpretation of X rays, EKGs, MRIs, mammograms, biopsies under microscope are far higher than what one expects. Two radiologists or pathologists often reach different conclusions. Sometimes even the same ones can arrive at different conclusions at different times (after reinterpreting their earlier findings).

In chapter 9, the author investigates economic incentives that distort the judgment of doctors. This includes Big Pharma relentless marketing of prescription drugs through persistent marketing reps. This also entails Big Pharma's effort to medicalize what is the normal process of aging. The author mentions the concept of Andropause (male menopause) that has no scientific bearing; but, doctors have aggressively treated this condition with testosterone supplements. These are useless. Economic incentives also lead surgeons to conduct operations way too often that provide no benefit to the patients. The author mentions spinal fusion and radical mastectomy among the surgeries that are way overdone in the U.S. Spinal fusion does not work better than not operating to eliminate low back pain. Oddly enough, insurers are responsible for excess surgeries as they offer higher reimbursement rates for invasive surgeries than for alternative therapies. The author also mentions the occasional nefarious networking between lawyers, radiologists, and surgeons creating a cycle of referrals, aggressive X ray diagnostics, and resulting unnecessary spinal fusion operation surgeries. Everybody makes money, and the patient believes his back problem was well taken care off.

Thus, diagnostic errors are a function of four factors: 1) the time and cost pressure associated with today's medical environment, 2) the complexity of human physiology, 3) the cognitive errors that the human brain makes across any profession, and 4) distorted economic incentives generated by Big Pharma, insurers, lawyers, and doctors themselves.

To prevent diagnostic errors ask the right type of open-ended questions suggests the author. These include: What else could it be? Is there anything that does not fit the current diagnostic? Is it possible I have more than one problem? These questions will force the doctor's thinking to slowdown his pattern recognition reflex and allow for more deliberation about a condition. These questions will also fight most of the mentioned cognitive errors that are all associated with expediting a diagnostic so as to move on to the next patient.

If you want to further understand medical errors due to economic incentives I recommend another book "What Doctors Don't Tell You" by Lynne McTaggart. Another excellent book on a similar subject is "The Last Well Person" by Nortin Hadler.

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