American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

 
Advertisement
Monday, March 3, 2014

Decision fatigue in physicians and medicine: the importance of routines and habits

“Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.” — Albert Einstein

One of the most mentally fatiguing actions that physicians face on a daily basis is the number of decisions we must make. Although we likely only make 1 or 2 major decisions for every patient encounter, in total we make hundreds (or maybe thousands) of decisions every day. This includes deciding what labs, imaging, and other studies to order, followed by what those results mean, a diagnosis or list of possible diagnoses, treatments, monitoring, patient follow up, etc.

Unfortunately, it has been shown that the more decisions that we make over the course of a day, the worse we become at it.

The New York Times article, ”Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?“ (highly suggested; approximately 22-minute read), begins by describing the rulings of parole board judges over the course of a year, finding that the pattern of their decisions fluctuated throughout the work day, favoring the prisoners who appeared early in the day.

“The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of 2 very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences.”

“The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.”

Decision fatigue was described by Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, who demonstrated that humans have a finite store of mental energy for making decisions, which can be broken down into the Rubicon model of action phases:
1. Predecisional Phase: assessing wishes and forming intended goal
2. Preactional Phase/Making a Decision: planning and choosing goal-directed actions
3. Actional Phase: implementing chosen actions
4. Postactional Phase: evaluating whether goal was achieved.

It turns out that a number of studies have shown that the act of making the decision and committing to action is more mentally demanding than any other phase.

The idea of decision fatigue is explained by Dr. Baumeister through a theory called ego depletion, where decisions are higher level executive functions thought to occur in the prefrontal cortex, and every decision we make, no matter how important or unimportant, expends some of the energy of this system, until our ability to make decisions deteriorates.

“Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted.”

This reluctance to make trade-offs explains why the parole judges were reluctant to decide to give prisoners parole at the end of the day. As physicians, we need to be aware of the tendency for decision fatigue to occur during our long days. Unfortunately, there is no telltale symptom of when willpower to make decisions is low, and the best method to avoid decision fatigue is planning routines to avoid it:

“‘Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,’ Baumeister says. “‘It’s a state that fluctuates.”‘ His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.”

Any opportunity to learn from extreme cases can offer incredible insight, and an extraordinary example of a decision maker to study is President Obama in Michael Lewis’ article, ”Obama’s Way,” where he discusses routines with the President, who is well aware of the effects of decision fatigue:

“You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. ‘You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,’ he said. ‘I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.’ He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. ’You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.’”

An article from EMSWorld, ”When Thinking is Hard: Managing Decision Fatigue,” discussed the implications of decision fatigue for EMTs and paramedics and agreed that trying to reduce overall decision load was the best way to manage this problem, and noted that individuals who were able to do this had routines and habits that included thoughtful planning, which reserved willpower for when it was needed most. As health care professionals, they noted the importance of having these planned routines:

“We tell ourselves it’s how we perform under pressure that counts most, but the sum of who we are as professionals is just as much determined by the everyday habits which make up our work.”

The idea that having specific routines to improve productivity is not new. The American philosopher and physician William James (1842-1910) wrote in detail about the importance of forming regular routines and the subsequent effect of allowing our brains to remain productive in his book Habit (open domain; review on Brain Pickings).

The book, Daily Rituals: A Guided Tour of Writers’ and Artists’ Creative Habits, which describes the routines of 161 famous and inspired minds (also reviewed on Brain Pickings), is another opportunity to learn from extreme thinkers, and also quotes one of William James’ 1892 lectures from the book Habit:

“The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”

At this point, the effect of decision fatigue in medicine needs further research for both physicians and patients. The University of Pennsylvania currently has 2 studies ongoing on this topic, one looking at its role in the ICU and another looking at its role in patients’ and patient surrogates’ end-of-life choices. The Journal of Palliative Medicine has written about the problem of decision fatigue for patients who are already exhausted from severe illness, acting as a reminder to give patients and their families a chance to regroup before making important decisions.

As doctors, we will always be required to make numerous daily decisions, so we need to do what we can try reduce our own decision fatigue, which might actually improve our work as a physicians and lives in general:
• Spend some time thinking about your routines at home and at work to avoid making additional decisions. Many of the routines described in Daily Rituals included repeating meals, dressing/grooming habits, and setups for getting work done.
• Make important or difficult decisions first in the morning. Many of us have a habit of checking e-mail first thing in the morning, which is often filled with a number of unimportant decisions that can wear us down. Instead, save this time of day for the tough ones.
• When possible, put off difficult decisions that come up at the end of the day until the next morning. In the field of rheumatology, we are often faced with complex decisions, but luckily, the majority of them are not extremely time-sensitive, allowing us time to research and discuss with collagues.
• I find it difficult to say anything to the effect of “workup every case of x with tests a, b, and c”, but I do think that as physicians, we do need to have a good understanding of the workup and management for the common conditions in our fields, such that we are able to reserve decision making energy throughout the day.

Any suggestions on routines or other habits that you have found helpful? Mention them in the comments.

Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine. This post originally appeared at his blog.

Labels: , ,

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This is a printer-friendly version of this page

Print this page  |  Close the preview

Advertisement

Share

 

Contact ACP Internist

Send comments to ACP Internist staff at acpinternist@acponline.org.

Blog log

Members of the American College of Physicians contribute posts from their own sites to ACP Internistand ACP Hospitalist. Contributors include:

Albert Fuchs, MD
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000.

And Thus, It Begins
Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.

Auscultation
Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Zackary Berger
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.

Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention
Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).

db's Medical Rants
Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.

DrDialogue
Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.

Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.

Everything Health
Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.

FutureDocs
Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.

Glass Hospital
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.

Gut Check
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.

I'm dok
Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.

Informatics Professor
William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.

David Katz, MD
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACP, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care.

Just Oncology
Richard Just, MD, ACP Member, has 36 years in clinical practice of hematology and medical oncology. His blog is a joint publication with Gregg Masters, MPH.

KevinMD
Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.

MD Whistleblower
Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.

Medical Lessons
Elaine Schattner, MD, FACP, shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology, and as a patient who's had breast cancer.

Mired in MedEd
Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is the Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education (CME), and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where he blogs about medical education.

More Musings
Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, a med-peds and general practice internist, returns with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).

Prescriptions
David M. Sack, MD, FACP, practices general gastroenterology at a small community hospital in Connecticut. His blog is a series of musings on medicine, medical care, the health care system and medical ethics, in no particular order.

Reflections of a Grady Doctor
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, reflects on the personal side of being a doctor in a community hospital in Atlanta.

The Blog of Paul Sufka
Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine.

Technology in (Medical) Education
Neil Mehta, MBBS, MS, FACP, is interested in use of technology in education, social media and networking, practice management and evidence-based medicine tools, personal information and knowledge management.

Peter A. Lipson, MD
Peter A. Lipson, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. The blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture.

Why is American Health Care So Expensive?
Janice Boughton, MD, FACP, practiced internal medicine for 20 years before adopting a career in hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling.

World's Best Site
Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine physician who has avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when he first wrote medically oriented computer programs. He is in practice in Tacoma, Washington.

Other blogs of note:

American Journal of Medicine
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.

Clinical Correlations
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.

Interact MD
Michael Benjamin, MD, ACP member, doesn't accept industry money so he can create an independent, clinician-reviewed space on the Internet for physicians to report and comment on the medical news of the day.

PLoS Blog
The Public Library of Science's open access materials include a blog.

White Coat Rants
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.

Powered by Blogger

RSS feed