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Critical Thinking Skills and Physician Hiring

Adaptive Medical Partners | Healthcare Administrators, Physician Recruiting

Critical thinking is the ability to take in information and skillfully analyze, assess and reconstruct it. Through this process, a person makes the information into a tool that can be used to innovate or problem solve. This allows people to build upon ideas and create new knowledge that can’t be memorized from a textbook or a Wikipedia page.

Given how vital critical thinking skills are to creating solutions and expanding knowledge, it makes sense that these should be a key skill healthcare facilities look for in physicians. Here’s why:

Why Critical Thinking Should Be Important in Physician Hiring

The blending of technical knowledge and critical thinking skills is often what separates great doctors from their peers. To get through medical school, you must study biology, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, pathology and a litany of other “-ologies.”

Unfortunately, much health and science education tend toward rote learning rather than the promotion of critical thinking. It’s easy to get stuck memorizing technical information and to neglect to develop the critical thinking necessary to wield this information effectively.

Good doctors can list which symptoms correspond to which diseases, which drugs are used to treat which symptoms, and how to perform surgical procedures with precision. However, it’s the physicians who are also excellent critical thinkers that are able to diagnose rare disorders based on subtle details overlooked by others, change a surgery mid-procedure due to a newly discovered abnormality, and pioneer innovative therapies to treat diseases.

This is why more medical schools need to teach critical thinking. A shift in how doctors approach their work could greatly benefit patients.

How Physicians Think

There is no doubt that physicians are smart, so how is it that even a seasoned physician could miss a simple diagnosis, such as confusing aspirin toxicity with viral pneumonia?

The problem is that physicians use the same psychological principles that everyone uses to make decisions. One such example, a “representativeness” error occurs when thinking is overly influenced by what is typically true. A doctor fails to consider possibilities that contradict a mental template of a disease and thus attribute symptoms to the wrong cause.

In the New Yorker’s “How Doctors Think,” Dr. Croskerry discusses how he mistook heart disease for a strained pectoral muscle. He made the mistake because the patient didn’t present with the typical symptoms of the disease.

Doctors are also susceptible to “availability” bias. For example, if you are working in the ED and you have just seen six cases of viral pneumonia with similar symptoms when the seventh person walks in with symptoms resembling the others, you’d most likely assume that this patient also has the same virus. These assumptions may keep a physician from looking at the case objectively.

Critical thinking skills are the key to avoiding these pitfalls. The ability to look at each case on an individual basis and to interpret the data correctly could be a matter of life and death.

How to Improve

Physicians must rely on both their intuition and their analytical ability to be effective practitioners. To rely too heavily on either would result in a doctor who either rushes to a diagnosis without considering all of the possibilities or one who orders far too many invasive tests and procedures in order to confirm a suspicion.

In order to succeed, physicians must be willing to challenge their own major cognitive and affective biases and the ways they affect thinking. For healthcare institutions to succeed, they must seek out physicians who understand the importance of critical thinking and are willing to be self-reflective in their medical practice.

By partnering with institutions like Adaptive Medical Partners that understand the importance of critical thinking in the medical fields, healthcare institutions can ensure that their doctors stand out within their respective fields and that their patients receive the best care possible.