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Our Dunning-Kruger Healthcare System

By Kim Bellard, July 11, 2019

Psychologist David Dunning, originator of the eponymous Dunning-Kruger effect, recently gave an interview to Vox’s Brian Resnick. For those of you not familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect, it refers to the cognitive bias that leads people to overestimate their knowledge or expertise. More importantly, those with low knowledge/ability are mostlikely to overestimate it.

Dr. Dunning believes that we tend to think that this effect only applies to others, or only to “stupid people,” when, in fact, it is something that impacts each of us As Dr. Dunning told Mr. Resnick, “The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club. People miss that.”

So, how does this relate to our healthcare system?

We brag about our excellent care, our great hospitals and doctors, and all those healthcare jobs powering local economies. Yet we have by far the most expensive healthcare system in the world, which is expensive not because it delivers better care or to more of its population than health systems in other countries, but because it feels it is justified in charging much higher prices. Our actual outcomes, quality of care, and equity are all woefully mediocre on a number of measures.

How many of you live in an area that has at least one hospital system claiming to be one of the “best” hospitals in the country? Similarly, how many of us like to believe that our doctors are “the best”? Perhaps they even have “best doctors” plaques in their offices to support this claim.

Statistically speaking, most of us receive average care, and some of us receive sub-standard care. We don’t live in Lake Wobegon. We can’t all be getting the best care, or even above-average care. Just look at how few hospitals earn high ratings from The Leapfrog Group.

In The Atlantic, Olga Khazan reported on a new study that suggests that, despite all their supposed superior knowledge, doctors don’t really make better patients than the rest of us. They get C-sections about as often, and about as unnecessarily as we do, they get about the same amount of unnecessary/low value tests, they’re not better at taking needed prescriptions.

As Michael Frakes, one of the authors told Ms. Khazan, the doctors “went through internships, residencies, fellowships. They’re super informed. And even then, they’re not doing that much better.” Professor Frakes speculated that even physicians tended to be “super deferential” to their own physicians, despite their own training and experience.

It is widely accepted that as much as a third of our healthcare services are unnecessary or inappropriate — even physicians admit that — but, of course, it is other physicians doing all that. No one likes to believe it is their doctor, and few doctors will admit that they are the problem.

Dunning-Kruger, indeed.

Much as they’d like us to, it is not enough for us to always assume that our healthcare professionals and institutions are qualified, much less “the best.” It is not enough for us to trust that their opinions are enough to base our care recommendations on. It is not enough to believe that local practice patterns are right for our care, even when they are at variance with national norms or best practices.

“Trust” is seen as essential to the patient-physician relationship, the supposed cornerstone of our healthcare system, but trust needs to be earned. We need facts. We need data. We need empirically-validated care. We need accountability.

Otherwise, we just fall victim to healthcare’s Dunning-Kruger effect.


This post is an abridged version of the posting in Kim Bellard’s blogsite. Click here to read the full posting.

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