'We Have Guidelines, but We Can Also Be Artists': Neurologists Discuss Prognostic Uncertainty, Cognitive Biases, and Scoring Tools

Brain Sci. 2022 Nov 21;12(11):1591. doi: 10.3390/brainsci12111591.


Introduction: Ischemic stroke is a leading cause of disability and mortality worldwide. As acute stroke patients often lose decision-making capacity, acute management is fraught with complicated decisions regarding life-sustaining treatment (LST). We aimed to explore (1) the perspectives and experiences of clinicians regarding the use of predictive scores for LST decision making in severe acute stroke, and (2) clinicians' awareness of their own cognitive biases in this context.

Methods: Four focus groups (FGs) were conducted with 21 physicians (13 residents and 8 attending physicians); two FGs in a university hospital and two in a regional hospital in French-speaking Switzerland. Discussions were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were analyzed thematically. Two of the four transcripts were double coded to establish coding framework consistency.

Results: Participants reported that predictive tools were not routinely used after severe stroke, although most knew about such scores. Scores were reported as being useful in quantifying prognosis, advancing scientific evidence, and minimizing potential biases in decisions. Their use is, however, limited by the following barriers: perception of inaccuracy, general disbelief in scoring, fear of self-fulfilling prophecy, and preference for clinical judgement. Emotional and cognitive biases were common. Emotional biases distort clinicians' knowledge and are notably: bias of personal values, negative experience, and cultural bias. Cognitive biases, such as availability, confirmation, and anchoring biases, that produce systematic deviations from rational thinking, were also identified.

Conclusions: The results highlight opportunities to improve decision making in severe stroke through the promotion of predictive tools, strategies for communicating prognostic uncertainty, and minimizing cognitive biases among clinicians, in order to promote goal-concordant care.

Keywords: cognitive biases; decision making; prognostic uncertainty; severe stroke.

Grant support

This research received no external funding.