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Uncertainty in Medicine

snowball
Medicine is an uncertain business. It is an applied science, applying the results of basic science knowledge and clinical studies to patients who are individuals with differing heredity, environment, and history. It is commonly assumed that modern science-based doctors know what they are doing, but quite often they don’t know for certain. Different doctors interpret the same evidence differently; there is uncertainty about how valid the studies’ conclusions are and there is still considerable uncertainty and disagreement about things like guidelines for screening mammography and statin prescriptions.

Snowball in a Blizzard by Steven Hatch, MD, is a book about uncertainty in medicine. The title refers to the difficulty of interpreting a mammogram, trying to pick out the shadows that signify cancer from a veritable blizzard of similar shadows. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Clinical Decision-Making: Part II

This is the second in a brief series of posts about how clinicians think. My purpose here is to elucidate how skeptical principles apply to clinical decision-making, but also as background to provide context to many of the articles we publish here.  In this installment I will review the factors that clinicians consider when deciding what tests to order for screening and when conducting a diagnostic workup.

The gunshot approach

Last week I discussed the “Dr. House” approach to medicine, using that particular TV character as an example of how medicine is often portrayed in fiction. Another aspect of the Dr. House image that is very misleading is his approach to diagnosis, which tends to be very linear. He decides what the most likely diagnosis is, then proceeds to either treat that entity or order a confirmatory diagnostic test. When that diagnosis fails, he then proceeds onto diagnosis B. A string of such failures then culminates in a flash of brilliance that allows him to make the actual obscure diagnosis and cure the patient. This approach is optimized for storytelling and drama, but is not how actual clinicians operate.

At the other end of the spectrum is what doctors often refer to as “the gunshot approach” – test for everything in hopes that you hit something. Another derogatory term that doctors throw around is “a fishing expedition,” referring to a diagnostic approach that amounts to hunting around for any possible diagnosis without having a real justification.

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