Physicians learn more by paying attention to failure

March 6, 2012 | by City of Hope Staff

Regardless of their years of experience, doctors who learn from their failures as well as their successes become better at picking the right treatment for patients, according to a research team including City of Hope’s Meghana Bhatt, Ph.D.

Magnetic resonance image of a brain Magnetic resonance image of a brain.

Scientists led by Read Montague, Ph.D., director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, studied 35 experienced physicians within a variety of non-surgical specialties. They scanned physicians’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the doctors’ brain activity as they made treatment decisions.

Brain imaging showed a clear difference in how physicians think. Some physicians activated their frontal lobes when things didn’t go as expected and their recommended treatments failed, Montague says. That activation showed that the doctors learned from their failures. These physicians gradually improved their performance.

In contrast, the low performers activated their frontal lobes when their selected treatment worked for a patient, says Bhatt. They ignored their failures and only learned from their successful cases, which confirmed what the low performers falsely thought they already knew about which treatment was best.

Only remembering successes and ignoring failures leaves physicians unable to abandon faulty ideas, but these physicians probably can be trained to think more like high-performers, the researchers say.

Notes Montague: “These findings underscore the dangers of disregarding past failures when making high-stakes decisions.”

The research was published in PLoS One, the Public Library of Science open-access journal.

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