Background Patients who display disruptive behaviours in the clinical encounter (the so-called ‘difficult patients’) may negatively affect doctors’ diagnostic reasoning, thereby causing diagnostic errors. The present study aimed at investigating the mechanisms underlying the negative influence of difficult patients’ behaviours on doctors’ diagnostic performance.
Methods A randomised experiment with 74 internal medicine residents. Doctors diagnosed eight written clinical vignettes that were exactly the same except for the patients’ behaviours (either difficult or neutral). Each participant diagnosed half of the vignettes in a difficult patient version and the other half in a neutral version in a counterbalanced design. After diagnosing each vignette, participants were asked to recall the patient's clinical findings and behaviours. Main measurements were: diagnostic accuracy scores; time spent on diagnosis, and amount of information recalled from patients’ clinical findings and behaviours.
Results Mean diagnostic accuracy scores (range 0–1) were significantly lower for difficult than neutral patients’ vignettes (0.41 vs 0.51; p<0.01). Time spent on diagnosing was similar. Participants recalled fewer clinical findings (mean=29.82% vs mean=32.52%; p<0.001) and more behaviours (mean=25.51% vs mean=17.89%; p<0.001) from difficult than from neutral patients.
Conclusions Difficult patients’ behaviours induce doctors to make diagnostic errors, apparently because doctors spend part of their mental resources on dealing with the difficult patients’ behaviours, impeding adequate processing of clinical findings. Efforts should be made to increase doctors’ awareness of the potential negative influence of difficult patients’ behaviours on diagnostic decisions and their ability to counteract such influence.
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Contributors SM, TVG and HGS conceived and designed the study. SM, SCES, KVdB, PLAVD, HB, TVdZ, WWVdB and JLCMVS prepared the materials and acquired the data. SM, TVG, SCES, KVdB, PLAVD, HB, TVdZ, JLCMVS and WWVdB analysed the data. SM and HGS wrote the paper. TVG, SCES, KVdB, PLAVD, HB, TVdZ, WWVdB and JLCMVS revised the paper. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript. SM and HGS contributed equally to the work and are the guarantors. All authors had full access to all of the data, including statistical reports and tables in the study and can take responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.
Competing interests None declared
Ethics approval The Ethics Committee (ECP) from the Department of Psychology, Erasmus University Rotterdam, approved both experiments comprised in this study (decision letter issued on 15 December 2011).
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Data sharing statement Case level data are available from the corresponding author.
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