Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project: How do ER surgeons avoid dumb, deadly mistakes? Ask their doctor.

Even doctors need a doctor sometimes.
Even doctors need a doctor sometimes.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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Over a decade ago Michael Lewis published Moneyball, a book that examined the unlikely success of the small-market Oakland A’s baseball team and their idiosyncratic general manager, Billy Beane. As Lewis later learned, two Israeli psychologists with an intense working relationship, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, actually discovered the underlying theories that explain why Moneyball worked—and why humans are so susceptible to basic errors in decision making. In an excerpt from his new book The Undoing Project, Lewis examines how Tversky and Kahneman influenced a Toronto doctor who helps trauma surgeons avoid similar errors in judgment when life and death are on the line.

The young woman they called him to examine that summer day was still in a state of shock. As Don Redelmeier understood it, her car had smashed head-on into another car a few hours earlier, and the ambulance had rushed her straight to Sunnybrook Hospital. She’d suffered broken bones everywhere— some of which they had detected and others, it later became clear, they had not. They’d found the multiple fractures in her ankles, feet, hips, and face. (They’d missed the fractures in her ribs.) But it was only after she arrived in the Sunnybrook operating room that they realized there was something wrong with her heart.

Sunnybrook was Canada’s first and largest regional trauma center, an eruption of red-brown bricks in a quiet Toronto suburb. It had started its life as a hospital for soldiers returning from the Second World War, but as the veterans died, its purpose shifted. In the 1960s the government finished building what would become at its widest a twenty-four-lane highway across Ontario. It would also become the most heavily used road in North America, and one of its busiest stretches passed close by the hospital. The carnage from Highway 401 gave the hospital a new life. Sunnybrook rapidly acquired a reputation for treating victims of automobile accidents; its ability to cope with one sort of medical trauma inevitably attracted other sorts of trauma. “Business begets business,” explained one of Sunnybrook’s administrators. By the turn of the twenty-first century, Sunnybrook was the go-to destination not only for victims of car crashes but for attempted suicides, wounded police officers, old people who had taken a fall, pregnant women with serious complications, construction workers who had been hurt on the job, and the survivors of gruesome snowmobile crashes—who were medevaced in with surprising frequency from the northern Canadian boondocks. Along with the trauma came complexity.

A lot of the damaged people who turned up at Sunnybrook had more than one thing wrong with them. That’s where Redelmeier entered. By nature a generalist, and by training an internist, his job in the trauma center was, in part, to check the understanding of the specialists for mental errors. “It isn’t explicit but it’s acknowledged that he will serve as a check on other people’s thinking,” said Rob Fowler, an epidemiologist at Sunnybrook. “About how people do their thinking. He keeps people honest. The first time people interact with him they’ll be taken aback: Who the hell is this guy, and why is he giving me feedback? But he’s lovable, at least the second time you meet him.” That Sunnybrook’s doctors had come to appreciate the need for a person to serve as a check on their thinking, Redelmeier thought, was a sign of how much the profession had changed since he entered it in the mid-1980s.

When he’d started out, doctors set themselves up as infallible experts; now there was a place in Canada’s leading regional trauma center for a connoisseur of medical error. A hospital was now viewed not just as a place to treat the unwell but also as a machine for coping with uncertainty. “Wherever there is uncertainty there has got to be judgment,” said Redelmeier, “and wherever there is judgment there is an opportunity for human fallibility.” Across North America, more people died every year as a result of preventable accidents in hospitals than died in car crashes— which was saying something. Bad things happened to patients, Redelmeier often pointed out, when they were moved without extreme care from one place in a hospital to another. Bad things happened when patients were treated by doctors and nurses who had forgotten to wash their hands. Bad things even happened to people when they pressed hospital elevator buttons. Redelmeier had actually co-written an article about that: “Elevator Buttons as Unrecognized Sources of Bacterial Colonization in Hospitals.” For one of his studies, he had swabbed 120 elevator buttons and 96 toilet seats at three big Toronto hospitals and produced evidence that the elevator buttons were far more likely to infect you with some disease.

But of all the bad things that happened to people in hospitals, the one that most preoccupied Redelmeier was clinical misjudgment. Doctors and nurses were human, too. They sometimes failed to see that the information patients offered them was unreliable—for instance, patients often said that they were feeling better, and might indeed believe themselves to be improving, when they had experienced no real change in their condition. Doctors tended to pay attention mainly to what they were asked to pay attention to, and to miss some bigger picture. They sometimes failed to notice what they were not directly assigned to notice. “One of the things Don taught me was the value of observing the room when the patient isn’t there,” says Jon Zipursky, chief of residents at Sunnybrook. “Look at their meal tray. Did they eat? Did they pack for a long stay or a short one? Is the room messy or neat? Once we walked into the room and the patient was sleeping. I was about to wake him up and Don stops me and says, There is a lot you can learn about people from just watching.”

Doctors tended to see only what they were trained to see: That was another big reason bad things might happen to a patient inside a hospital. A patient received treatment for something that was obviously wrong with him, from a specialist oblivious to the possibility that some less obvious thing might also be wrong with him. The less obvious thing, on occasion, could kill a person. The conditions of people mangled on the 401 were often so dire that the most obvious things wrong with them demanded the complete attention of the medical staff, and immediate treatment. But the dazed young woman who arrived in the Sunnybrook emergency room directly from her head-on car crash, with her many broken bones, presented her surgeons, as they treated her, with a disturbing problem. The rhythm of her heartbeat had become wildly irregular. It was either skipping beats or adding extra beats; in any case, she had more than one thing seriously wrong with her.

Immediately after the trauma center staff called Redelmeier to come to the operating room, they diagnosed the heart problem on their own— or thought they had. The young woman remained alert enough to tell them that she had a past history of an overactive thyroid. An overactive thyroid can cause an irregular heartbeat. And so, when Redelmeier arrived, the staff no longer needed him to investigate the source of the irregular heartbeat but to treat it. No one in the operating room would have batted an eye if Redelmeier had simply administered the drugs for hyperthyroidism. Instead, Redelmeier asked everyone to slow down. To wait. Just a moment. Just to check their thinking— and to make sure they were not trying to force the facts into an easy, coherent, but ultimately false story. Something bothered him. As he said later, “Hyperthyroidism is a classic cause of an irregular heart rhythm, but hyperthyroidism is an infrequent cause of an irregular heart rhythm.” Hearing that the young woman had a history of excess thyroid hormone production, the emergency room medical staff had leaped, with seeming reason, to the assumption that her overactive thyroid had caused the dangerous beating of her heart. They hadn’t bothered to consider statistically far more likely causes of an irregular heartbeat. In Redelmeier’s experience, doctors did not think statistically. “Eighty percent of doctors don’t think probabilities apply to their patients,” he said. “Just like 95% of married couples don’t believe the 50% divorce rate applies to them, and 95% of drunk drivers don’t think the statistics that show that you are more likely to be killed if you are driving drunk than if you are driving sober applies to them.”

Redelmeier asked the emergency room staff to search for other, more statistically likely causes of the woman’s irregular heartbeat. That’s when they found her collapsed lung. Like her fractured ribs, her collapsed lung had failed to turn up on the X-ray. Unlike the fractured ribs, it could kill her. Redelmeier ignored the thyroid and treated the collapsed lung. The young woman’s heartbeat returned to normal. The next day, her formal thyroid tests came back: Her thyroid hormone production was perfectly normal. Her thyroid never had been the issue. “It was a classic case of the representativeness heuristic,” said Redelmeier. “You need to be so careful when there is one simple diagnosis that instantly pops into your mind that beautifully explains everything all at once. That’s when you need to stop and check your thinking.” It wasn’t that what first came to mind was always wrong; it was that its existence in your mind led you to feel more certain than you should be that it was correct. “Beware of the delirious guy in the emergency unit with the long history of alcoholism,” said Redelmeier, “because you will say, ‘He’s just drunk,’ and you’ll miss the subdural hematoma.” The woman’s surgeons had leapt from her medical history to a diagnosis without considering the base rates.

As Kahneman and Tversky long ago had pointed out, a person who is making a prediction— or a diagnosis— is allowed to ignore base rates only if he is completely certain he is correct. Inside a hospital, or really anyplace else, Redelmeier was never completely certain about anything, and he didn’t see why anybody else should be, either.