Estimation of post-test probabilities by residents: Bayesian reasoning versus heuristics?

Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract. 2014 Aug;19(3):393-402. doi: 10.1007/s10459-013-9485-1. Epub 2014 Jan 22.


Although the process of diagnosing invariably begins with a heuristic, we encourage our learners to support their diagnoses by analytical cognitive processes, such as Bayesian reasoning, in an attempt to mitigate the effects of heuristics on diagnosing. There are, however, limited data on the use ± impact of Bayesian reasoning on the accuracy of disease probability estimates. In this study our objective was to explore whether Internal Medicine residents use a Bayesian process to estimate disease probabilities by comparing their disease probability estimates to literature-derived Bayesian post-test probabilities. We gave 35 Internal Medicine residents four clinical vignettes in the form of a referral letter and asked them to estimate the post-test probability of the target condition in each case. We then compared these to literature-derived probabilities. For each vignette the estimated probability was significantly different from the literature-derived probability. For the two cases with low literature-derived probability our participants significantly overestimated the probability of these target conditions being the correct diagnosis, whereas for the two cases with high literature-derived probability the estimated probability was significantly lower than the calculated value. Our results suggest that residents generate inaccurate post-test probability estimates. Possible explanations for this include ineffective application of Bayesian reasoning, attribute substitution whereby a complex cognitive task is replaced by an easier one (e.g., a heuristic), or systematic rater bias, such as central tendency bias. Further studies are needed to identify the reasons for inaccuracy of disease probability estimates and to explore ways of improving accuracy.

MeSH terms

  • Alberta
  • Bayes Theorem*
  • Diagnosis*
  • Education, Medical, Graduate*
  • Educational Measurement*
  • Female
  • Heuristics*
  • Humans
  • Internal Medicine / education*
  • Internship and Residency*
  • Male
  • Thinking