Anchoring Bias: Is It Real?

Tania Jain, MBBS
Published: Sunday, Dec 03, 2017
Tania Jain, MBBS

Tania Jain, MBBS
During a typical afternoon, you have a cramped schedule with 8 to 9 patients to see during a 3-hour clinic. Your pager buzzes many times, in between these clinic encounters about another patient receiving chemotherapy under your care. The stage is set you to make a decision for your patient without thinking too much. Alternatively, you may rely too heavily on the information provided by another physician, which is (un)popularly known as “anchoring bias.”

Case 1

An elderly woman was evaluated for new-onset strabismus. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of her brain revealed a petrous-caval area lesion, which was reported to be a meningioma based on its radiographic appearance. She also reported worsening back pain. An MRI of her spine revealed a L4 lytic lesion. A biopsy of the vertebral lesion revealed findings of a plasmacytoma—an extramedullary version of monoclonal plasma cell neoplasm that is not related to meningioma in the oncology pedigree.

At first, I didn’t think there was a reason to share this case. However, I was later inspired to share my story after attending a morbidity and mortality case conference during which the case mentioned below (case 2) was discussed.

Case 2

A middle-aged man was evaluated for a metastatic melanoma located in the lung. The man’s brain scan revealed a lesion that was, incidentally, deemed to be a meningioma based on his radiology report. But was it? This time, a lack of time to consider the man’s options for diagnosis got the better of the clinician’s judgment.

As oncologists, we don’t get many shots at being right. After a couple of weeks, the patient developed a change in mental status, which turned out to be secondary to increasing size of the brain lesion and worsening edema surrounding it. Upon surgical resection and microscopic evaluation at this time, the brain lesion was found to be metastatic melanoma, which was then managed with postoperative radiation in addition to systemic therapy.

Case 3

After initially being signed out of the emergency department by his physician as having meningitis, as suggested by a high fever, tachycardia, headaches, and tremors, a patient was admitted to the medicine floor for further care. An additional elaborate patient history, obtained by a medical student on the hospital floor, revealed that the patient had a history of hyperthyroidism. The patient also mentioned that he had not taken his medication for the condition in a while. Fortunately, the medical student was neither shy nor slow to speak up. Based on the results of additional workup, a hyperthyroid crisis was diagnosed, which could have become potentially fatal if not recognized in time and managed appropriately.

Recognizing Anchoring Bias

Anchoring bias refers to a cognitive tendency to lock on to a clinical diagnosis too early, often by making decisions based on information provided by another physician. It’s the tendency to fit the symptom complex into the diagnosis box and anchor onto a diagnosis already provided to us.
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View Conference Coverage
Online CME Activities
TitleExpiration DateCME Credits
Medical Crossfire®: How Can We Optimize Outcomes in Head and Neck Cancers with Immunotherapeutic Strategies?Oct 31, 20191.5
Medical Crossfire®: Experts Weigh-In on Emerging Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors and Combination Strategies for Advanced NSCLCNov 30, 20191.5
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