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Doctors' 'Gut Feeling' Should Not Be Ignored, Study Suggests

Update Date: Sep 26, 2012 08:22 AM EDT

Many times, when a doctor is treating a patient, apart from what the clinical diagnosis says, there is a gut feeling that the doctor has which could say otherwise. Although acting upon his/her gut feeling which may or may not be true is a personal choice for the doctor, a new study suggests that this feeling should not be ignored.

According to the study, a doctor's intuitive feelings even after examination, suggesting otherwise, seems to have even more diagnostic value than many symptoms and signs.

It is very easy to miss a serious infection in young children. While there are studies that have suggested that intuitive feelings by doctors should be seen as highly important, there is not much understanding about its usefulness.

Thus, researchers from Oxford and Belgium went on to study 3890 children aged between 0 and 16 years who presented in primary care in Flanders, Belgium in 2004.

The researchers set out to examine how gut feeling (defined as the "intuitive feeling that something was wrong even if the clinician was unsure why") helps diagnosis. The researchers recorded factors like the doctor's overall impression and if his/her gut feeling suggested something more serious to be wrong.

The findings of the study revealed that of the 3369 children assessed as having a non-severe illness at the time of consultation, six were later admitted to hospital with a serious infection. Findings further revealed that if the doctors had acted on their gut feeling, two of the six cases could have been prevented. The probability of a serious infection decreased from 0.2 percent to 0.1 percent when gut feeling was absent, Medical Xpress reported.

In fact, it seems, 21 out of the 3890 children were eventually admitted to the hospital with a serious infection and nine were not referred at first contact. However, in four of the nine children, the doctor had a gut feeling that something was seriously wrong.

The research revealed that the most common factor among cases where doctors have a gut feeling was with the child's history of convulsions, overall appearance and breathing. Also, another factor provoking a sense of something being wrong stemmed from by parental concern that the illness is different.

Interestingly, the diagnostic power of gut feelings was not found to be any better in experienced doctors than in non-experienced doctors.

According to authors of the study, medical teaching should make clear that an "inexplicable gut feeling is an important diagnostic sign and a very good reason for seeking the opinion of someone with more paediatric expertise or performing additional testing".

The authors further say that if doctors have a gut feeling of something more serious being wrong, they should do three things compulsorily: Conduct a full and careful examination; seeking advice from a more experienced clinician and provide the parent with safety netting advice.

The study was published in BMJ.

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