How Doctors Think

In New York magazine, Sam Anderson reviews How Doctors Think. (To be confirmed or refuted by all the physicians on 3QD.)

These days, for every appointment with an actual doctor, the average person probably undergoes 300 virtual appointments—via ER, House, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, and self-diagnostic sites like WebMD. This, oddly, makes real live doctors, these humans with bad breath and imperfect hair who poke us in places we wish they wouldn’t and issue boring diagnoses, some of the last remaining medical novelties.

Now, partly in an effort to bring this unfamiliar beast to light, and cure the pandemic of our doctor obsession, Jerome Groopman has published a bit of cognitive ethnography called How Doctors Think. (Among its many merits, the book suggests a promising new subgenre: Imagine the pleasures of How Supreme Court Justices Think, How CEOs Think, How Plumbers Think.) Groopman is qualified for this job both professionally—he teaches at Harvard Medical School and writes for The New Yorker—and, more important, temperamentally: He is sane, adult, and almost superhumanly conscientious. He claims to remember every misdiagnosis from his 30-year career and takes a moment in an author’s note to reassure us that “ ‘Doctors A, B, C, D, and E’ are fictitious names.” The book is a mixture of methodological theorizing, personal history (Groopman, with his endearingly gimpy wrist and painfully fused spine, has suffered much at the hands of his colleagues), and entertaining stories of misdiagnoses and miraculous saves. There is fascinating insider trivia: Doctors begin assessing your health the moment they see you in the waiting room; they tend to interrupt patients within twelve seconds and arrive at a working diagnosis within twenty; they dislike sick people; and (according to one admirably blunt source) the real mission of an ER is “to establish to our comfort, and the patient’s comfort, that what is bothering them is not going to kill them in the next three days.”

[H/t Maeve Adams.]