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What is left-digit bias, and how can it impact your medical care?

We all know that doctors' personal biases can impact the level of care they provide their patients. They may not even be aware of these biases. However -- like all humans -- they have them. They can involve gender, race, weight and a host of other characteristics. For example, one study found that emergency department physicians were less likely to give black patients pain medication than white ones suffering approximately the same amount of pain.

However, studies are increasingly finding that doctors -- again, like all humans -- have cognitive biases. These can impact their treatment decisions. Cognitive biases are "mental shortcuts" people take that can result in erroneous decision-making. A key one that can impact medical treatment and have serious consequences for patients is "left-digit bias."

Left-digit bias causes us to pay more attention to the digit on the far left of a number than the ones following it. It's the reason you're more likely to find products in a store priced at $5.99 than $6.00.

How does this relate to health care? Here are a couple of examples: A doctor may be more likely to see someone who's 49 as someone in their 40s instead of as someone who's nearly 50. They might not recommend that a 49-year-old get a colonoscopy even if they're just a year away from the point at which they recommend it.

Left-digit bias also plays a role in reviewing test results and making treatment decisions. For example, a hemoglobin level of 9.9 grams per deciliter is essentially the same as a level of 10.0. However, a doctor might perceive a patient with that slightly lower level as being significantly more anemic because they're focusing on the "9" and proceed with treatment based on that.

Obviously, we hope that our doctors will give greater thought to their treatment decisions than a quick look at that left digit. However, it's important to know that cognitive biases can impact our medical care if a doctor or other medical professional is rushed or not paying adequate attention to what they're doing. If you or a loved one has been harmed by a doctor's negligence or error, it's a good idea to find out what your legal options are.

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