Monday, March 19, 2012

How medicine is like quantum physics

When a patients goes to his doctor to get fixed a pivotal triad of presentation-diagnosis-treatment ensues. The three steps are as follows:
1. History, physical examination and a differential diagnosis
When the patient shows up with a complaint, a constellation of symptoms and signs, a good clinician collects this information and funnels it through a mesh of possibilities, ruling certain conditions in and others out to derive the initial differential diagnosis.
2. Diagnostic testing
Having gone through the exercise in step 1, the practitioner then decides on appropriate diagnostic testing in order to narrow down further the possible reasons for the person's state.
3. Treatment
Finally, having reviewed all the data, the clinician makes the therapeutic choice.

These three steps seem dead simple, and we have all experienced them, either as patients or clinicians or both. Yet the cause for the current catastrophic state of our healthcare system lies within the brackets of each of these three little domains.

The cause is our failure to acknowledge the vast universe of uncertainty dotted sparsely with the galaxies of definiteness, all shrouded in false confidence. And while the cause and the way to address it are conceptually simple, the remedy is not easy to implement. But I am jumping ahead; first I have to convince you that I have indeed discovered the cause of this ruin.

Let's examine what goes on in step 1, the compilation of history and physical to generate a differential diagnosis. This is usually an implicit process that takes place mostly at a subconscious level, where the mind makes connections between the current patient and what the clinician has learned and experienced. What does that mean? It means that the clinician, within the constraints of time and the incredible shrinking appointment, has to listen, examine, elicit and put together all of the data in such a way as to cram them into a few little diagnostic boxes, many of which contain much more material than a human brain can hold all at once, even if that brain is at the right tail of human cognition (or not). What overtakes at this step is a bunch of heuristics and biases. Have we talked about those enough here? Just to review, heuristics are mental shortcuts that can serve us well, but can also lead us astray, particularly under conditions of extreme uncertainty, as in a healthcare encounter. If you want to learn more about this, read Kahneman, Slovic and Tversky's opus "Judgement under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases." As for cognitive biases, I will not belabor them, as there is enough material about them on this web site and elsewhere to overload a spaceship.

The picture that emerges at this step is one of fragments of information gathered being fit into fragments of studies and experience, stirred with mental shortcuts and poured into a bunch of baking tins shaped like specific diagnoses. Is there any room in this process for assigning objective probabilities to any of these events? Well, there is an illusion of doing so, but even this step is done by feel, rather than by computation. So while there is some awareness of a probabilistic hierarchy, it is more chaos than science. Given this picture, it's a wonder it actually works as well as it does, don't you think?

The next step in this recipe is the diagnostic workup. What ensues here is utter Wild West, particularly as new technologies are adopted at breakneck speed without any thought to the interpretation of data that they are capable of spitting out. Here the confusion of the first step gets magnified exponentially, just as it seduces us into further illusion of certainty. The uncertainties in arriving at the differential get multiplied by the imperfections of diagnostic tests to give the encounter truly quantum properties: you may know the results or you may know the patient, but you may not know both at the same time. What I mean is what I have always said on this blog: no test is perfect, and because of this simple truth, unless we know the pre-test probability of the disease in a particular patient, as well as the characteristics of the test, we have no idea about the context of these results. Taking them at face value, as we know, is a grave error.

What follows these results is frequently more diagnostic hit-or-misses, as the likelihood of harm and escalating expenditures without any added value rises. Then comes the treatment, with its many uncertainties and the potential for adverse events, and what are we left with? A pile of costly and deadly steaming manure. So, what's a doc to do?

I think that there is a very simple solution to this, and in its simplicity it will be incredibly hard to implement: education. And I don't just mean medical education. Everything that I have talked about in this post echoes back to the concept of probability. In the secondary education, at least as I remember it, probability is left to Advanced Math. By the time a student becomes eligible to take this course, she has been made to feel that she does not have the facility for math, and that, furthermore, math is boring and useless. So, while my friends in education may have a much better idea of what percentage of kids leave high school having been exposed to some probability, my guess is that it is woefully small. And those that do get exposure to it walk out of class perfectly able to bet on a game of craps or a horse race, but no clue how to apply these ideas to the world they live in.

And so those who progress into healthcare and those who don't have heard the word "probability," but cannot quite understand how it impacts them beyond their chance of winning the lottery. And unfortunately, I have to tell you that, if I relied on what I learned in medical school about probability, well, let's just say it is highly improbable that we would be having this discussion right now. This is why I do now and will for the foreseeable future harp on all of these probabilities, so that when you are faced with your own medical decisions, you will at least know the right questions to ask.

I know I need to wrap this up -- I saw that yawn! Here is the bottom line. First, we need to acknowledge the colossal uncertainties in medicine. Once we have done so, we need to understand that such uncertainties require a probabilistic approach in order to optimize care. Finally, such probabilistic approach has to be taught early and often. All of us, clinicians and patients alike, are responsible for creating this monster that we call healthcare in the 21st century. We will not train it to behave by adding more parts. The only way to train it is to train our brains to be much more critical and to engage in a conversation about probabilities. Without this shift a constructive change in how medicine is done in this country is, well, improbable.              

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