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When Evidence Says No, But Doctors Say Yes

By ProPublica  
   February 22, 2017

Almost to a person, the cardiologists, including those whose incomes were not tied to tests and procedures, gave the same answers: They said that they were aware of the data but would still send the patient for a stent. The rationalizations in each focus group followed four themes: (1) Cardiologists recalled stories of people dying suddenly—including the highly publicized case of jogging guru Jim Fixx—and feared they would regret it if a patient did not get a stent and then dropped dead. The study authors concluded that cardiologists were being influenced by the "availability heuristic," a term coined by Nobel laureate psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman for the human instinct to base an important decision on an easily recalled, dramatic example, even if that example is irrelevant or incredibly rare. (2) Cardiologists believed that a stent would relieve patient anxiety. (3) Cardiologists felt they could better defend themselves in a lawsuit if a patient did get a stent and then died, rather than if they didn't get a stent and died. "In California," one said, "if this person had an event within two years, the doctor who didn't intervene would be successfully sued." And there was one more powerful and ubiquitous reason: (4) Despite the data, cardiologists couldn't believe that stents did not help: Stenting just made so much sense. A patient has chest pain, a doctor sees a blockage, how can opening the blockage not make a difference?

In the late 1980s, with evidence already mounting that forcing open blood vessels was less effective and more dangerous than noninvasive treatments, cardiologist Eric Topol coined the term, "oculostenotic reflex." Oculo, from the Latin for "eye," and stenotic, from the Greek for "narrow," as in a narrowed artery. The meaning: If you see a blockage, you'll reflexively fix a blockage. Topol described "what appears to be an irresistible temptation among some invasive cardiologists" to place a stent any time they see a narrowed artery, evidence from thousands of patients in randomized trials be damned. Stenting is what scientists call "bio-plausible"—intuition suggests it should work. It's just that the human body is a little more Book of Job and a little less household plumbing: Humans didn't invent it, it's really complicated, and people often have remarkably little insight into cause and effect.

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

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