Thresholds, rules and defensive strategies: how physicians learn from their prior diagnosis-related experiences

Diagnosis (Berl). 2020 May 26;7(2):115-121. doi: 10.1515/dx-2019-0025.


Background Health professionals are encouraged to learn from their errors. Determining how primary care physicians (PCPs) react to a case, in which their original diagnosis differed from the final outcome, could provide new insights on how they learn from experiences. We explored how PCPs altered their diagnostic evaluation of future patients after cases where the originally assumed diagnosis turned out to be wrong. Methods We asked German PCPs to complete an online survey where they described how the patient concerned originally presented, the subsequent course of events and whether they would change their diagnostic work-up of future patients. Qualitative methods were used to analyze narrative text obtained by this survey. Results A total of 29 PCPs submitted cases, most of which were ultimately found to be more severe than originally assumed. PCPs (n = 27) reflected on changes to their subsequent clinical decisions in the form of general maxims (n = 20) or more specific rules (n = 11). Most changes would have resulted in a lower threshold for investigations, referral and/or a more extensive collection of diagnostic information. PCPs decided not only to listen more often to their intuition (gut feelings), but to also practice more analytical reasoning. Participants felt the need for change of practice even if no clinical standards had been violated in the diagnosis of that case. Some decided to resort to defensive strategies in the future. Conclusions We describe mechanisms by which physicians calibrate their decision thresholds, as well as their cognitive mode (intuitive vs. analytical). PCPs reported the need for change in clinical practice despite the absence of error in some cases.

Keywords: clinical decision-making; defensive medicine; delayed diagnosis; diagnostic errors; general practice; primary health care.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Physicians, Primary Care*
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Surveys and Questionnaires