Clinical reasoning about new symptoms despite preexisting disease: sources of error and order effects

Fam Med. 1995 May;27(5):314-20.


Background: Previous work that studied the evaluation of new, atypical symptoms in patients with preexisting diseases indicated that physicians largely ignored the past medical history and therefore erred in their diagnoses, when compared to a Bayesian analysis. Other studies have shown that the order in which information is presented to a decision maker can affect the inferences drawn, again contrary to a Bayesian standard.

Objectives: The aim of the study was to investigate the source of disparity between clinical judgment and Bayesian analysis and to investigate the effect of alternative orders of presenting information on diagnostic conclusions.

Methods: Two groups of family physicians received a written clinical scenario. One group was given the past medical history before the history of present illness, the physical exam, and the laboratory data. The second group learned about the past medical history after all other clinical information had been presented. Judgments of test accuracy and probably diagnosis were collected at several points to identify the source of any diagnostic error.

Results: For both groups, the major source of error was in estimating the prior probability of disease, not in estimating the accuracy of a diagnostic test or updating opinions following receipt of test results. Although both groups of physicians received the same information, they came to markedly different conclusions about the most likely diagnosis. The group given the past medical history at the beginning of the scenario considered this information much less significant than did the group who received it at the end.

Conclusions: Family physicians deviate from a Bayesian standard of reasoning by wrongly specifying prior probabilities and by being influenced by the order in which clinical information is presented.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bayes Theorem
  • Diagnosis*
  • Diagnostic Errors
  • Family Practice* / education
  • Family Practice* / standards
  • Medical History Taking*
  • Models, Educational
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'*
  • Probability