What Are Heuristics?

You go to your doctor’s office in Stamford understanding that despite the advances seen in medical technology in recent years, his or her ability to accurately diagnose you is still somewhat limited by his or her available resources. Still, you expect that the accuracy of the equipment that is available to him or her (coupled with his or her knowledge and experience) will help him or her to, if nothing else, at least come close to identifying your condition or ailment. What you may not know is that much of the decision making that goes into your diagnosis may be based off something else entirely: heuristics.

What are heuristics? These are rules, patterns and indications that drive decisions and processes in a given industry. A more common way of thinking of them may be to consider them general “rules of thumb.” In healthcare, providers rely on heuristics to diagnose patients and develop treatment plans. The way you describe your symptoms will typically trigger what heuristic your doctor will utilize in determining your condition.

At face value, there may not appear to be anything wrong with this method of thinking (countless other industries utilize heuristics in their operations every day). However, The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality correctly points out that heuristics can contribute to cognitive bias. It lists specific examples of this as being:

  • Doctors diagnosing based off past experiences
  • Doctors sticking with an initial diagnostic impression
  • Doctors making decisions based off subtle cues and collateral information
  • Doctors placing too much emphasis on expert opinion

Heuristics should be used to help point your doctor in the direction of a diagnosis. However, they should not be the sole basis of a diagnosis, especially when clinical indicators do not support them.

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