Why We Shouldn’t Decide Ourselves When We Need Medical Attention

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Four years ago, I was driving home from work when I began to experience mild chest pain.  It was located slightly to the right of my sternum and felt like a muscle strain.  My chest was slightly tender when I pressed on it, but so slightly that I felt unsure with every other palpation if it actually was.  When I turned in my car seat, it hurt more as well.  I thought it was one of those mysterious minor pains we all get every so often.

I’d recently suffered from an internal hemorrhage—a complication of an appendectomy—that had required a re-operation a day later, and had planned to call my doctor as I drove home to discuss some follow up labs.  He told me my results were normal when I called, to which I responded offhandedly and incongruently, “Well, that’s good, because I’m having a little chest pain.”

“Since when?” he asked.

“Just now.  About five minutes.”

There was silence.

Surprised by his hesitation, I asked, “Why?  What are you thinking?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.  “Maybe a PE.”

“PE” stands for pulmonary embolism, a potentially life-threatening condition in which a blood clot forms, typically in one of the deep veins of the legs, and then breaks off, travels through the right side of the heart, and lands in the lungs.  If large enough, or if multiple PEs shower the lungs at once, it can be fatal.  PEs usually occur in the context of risk factors:  recent surgery, obesity, airplane travel of greater than four hours duration, and trauma, just to name a few.

That I could have had one hadn’t even occurred to me.  Which was strange, I thought, given that I’d had recent surgery—twice—the second of which was in response to a form of trauma (the internal bleeding), and had just returned from a round-trip airplane flight, each lasting exactly four hours, from Mexico.  PE, as a resident had once taught me, “is the devil”—meaning, it can present in almost any way it wants:  with chest pain (or not), shortness of breath (or not), the coughing up of blood (or not), a rapid pulse (or not).  You made the diagnosis by retaining a high index of suspicion when risk factors were present.

All this is to say that any kind of chest pain in the context of my recent medical history should have immediately triggered the possibility of a PE in my mind.  It should have done so in a  third year medical student’s mind.  But it hadn’t even entered mine at all.

“It’s definitely tender,” I told my doctor.

“Maybe…” he mused, meaning that maybe the cause was only musculoskeletal as I’d originally supposed.

I continued driving to my wife’s work to pick her up.  “What do you think I should do?” I asked him, determined not to play at being my own doctor.

“Well,” he said reluctantly, “we could just watch you overnight.  If it’s still there in the morning, we could scan you then…”

I liked that idea very much, even though I knew the pain from a PE often faded once the inflammation it kicked up had settled down.  Nevertheless, we quickly agreed on that plan and hung up.

A minute later, however, he called me back.  “I’m not going to be able to sleep if we don’t scan you tonight,” he said.

“Really?” I said.  I’d almost reached my wife’s work and was more than a little reluctant to drive all the way back to the hospital.  “I’m turning in my seat now and it’s clearly making it worse,” I argued.

“Alex,” he said, “so what?”

I stopped.  “Okay,” I said.  “I’ll come back.”

So I picked up my wife and together we drove back to the hospital.  There I had a PE-protocol CT scan and walked back to the waiting area where my wife waited.  I felt chipper and unconcerned.

That is, until I saw the expression on the radiology resident’s face as he approached us a few minutes later.  “You actually have a moderate-sized PE in your right lung,” he said uncomfortably.

“You’re kidding,” was all I could think to say.  He shook his head and walked me over to the ER where I was placed on an IV blood thinner.  As I lay on the ER gurney, terrified, I wondered why I’d not even thought that I might have a PE, as well as why my doctor (who happened to be a close personal friend) had tried to ignore the possibility himself once he’d thought of it.

The answer at which I arrived has to do with the way our minds work and a particular cognitive bias I’ve described beforeDisconfirmation bias means simply we ignore facts that support ideas we don’t want to believe.  I clearly had a good reason not to want to believe I had a PE.  What shocked me, however, was how unconsciously this bias worked, preventing me from even having the thought that I might.  My doctor friend struggled with the same bias, the strength of his desire not to hand me a bad diagnosis leading him to act as if it was less likely than it actually was, something I’ve written about in previous post, When Doctors Don’t Know What’s Wrong.  Neither of us wanted me to have what I ended up having.

I’ve seen this kind of behavior in my own patients as long as I’ve been a doctor (I once had a veteran take a nine-hour bus ride with crushing substernal chest pain to come to a university hospital rather than his local ER).  The ability to deny a symptom’s significance is as strong in some people as the tendency to read too much into it is in others.  Studies suggest that the risk of dying from a heart attack is greatest in the first thirty minutes after symptoms appear.  By that time, however, most of my patients are just getting around to thinking about calling a relative to ask them if they think it’s likely to be anything serious.

The point, then, is simply this:  we’re cognitively predisposed, most of us, to believe we’re okay.  The moment even minor symptoms flare, most of us begin explaining them away, not because they’re necessarily unimportant, but because we don’t want them to be.  This cognitive distortion is actually quite useful in that it protects us from suffering overwhelming anxiety in response to the daily inexplicable aches and pains many of us experience.  But when it obscures our judgment and prevents us from acting quickly to preserve our health, it’s quite clearly a liability.  It very well may not be possible to entirely free ourselves from this bias, and certainly in most situations we probably don’t want to.  But whenever we find ourselves automatically dismissing an unusual symptom, we should stop and ask ourselves:  are we sure it’s really nothing?

If you’re like me, the context in which you find yourself when such symptoms occur will have an enormous impact on what you decide to do about them.  Had I not been on my way home when my chest pain struck, for instance, I’m certain I wouldn’t have resisted getting it evaluated as much as I initially did.  (The prospect of getting to an ER from where we are and potentially having to wait hours even to be seen can be enormously off-putting.)  That such small considerations can loom large in our mind when we’re debating whether or not to seek help should be something of which we remain wary.  I see no other way to minimize the bias that, if we’re not careful, could mean the difference between life and death.  Otherwise, when it comes to our own health, sometimes we’re the last people to whom we should listen.

Next WeekFunerals

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  • Alex,
    I hope everything is fine with you now. Take care. Will be sending diamoku to you.

    Thquah: No worries. I’m all better, thanks.


  • WOW, that’s lucky your doc had second thoughts. I’m so glad you were able to get that taken care of. Yikes, it’s scary to think of what a close call that’d be.

  • Wow, glad you’re OK!

    Probably my “sick” sense of humor, but did you decide on next week’s topic before or after your PE incident? 🙂

    Once again, glad you’re OK, and glad your doctor listened to his inner voice.

    Catrien: Thanks. And I decided to write about funerals because sadly a relative of mine just recently died.


  • Alex,

    Your posts are always so timely. I am reading Cutting for Stone (I sure hope you have read it) and this same thought occurred to me as I reached a critical scene towards the conclusion of this great book. We never want to admit our own physical weakness or mortality and it seems it is even worse with physicians. As we age and should know better (I am 58). I had my own chest pain incident several months ago and refused to call 911 at 1 a.m. in a snowstorm and went to the ER the following morning. Fortunately, I was fine, but I learned that next time, I will call 911. Thanks for the post and reminder about that 30-minute window.

    Jedda: Glad you were all right. And, yes, I’ve read Cutting for Stone. Loved it.


  • I often ponder my assessment abilities as a critical care nurse when it came to my mother’s health. Why did I not see Joan was anemic when she complained of being cold? Why did I not get her into the hospital sooner—maybe she would have lived a little longer. Your posting today brings me some comfort. Once again, thank you for taking such great care of her.

    Shari: As always, you are so welcome. It was a joy. We simply have emotional blinders on when it comes to our loved ones and ourselves that sometimes turns our intellectual powers of reason to goo.


  • My condolences, Alex, and I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts.

  • Alex, I love your website! I had a sort of disconfirmation bias last week. I have chronic asthma and am on a steroid inhaler and rescue inhaler. I woke up at night after a short period of sleep and found my chest feeling “tight,” meaning I was having an asthmatic event. I used my rescue inhaler, but still felt that I couldn’t get enough air. I was alarmed and considered calling 911, but—and here’s the disconfirmation—my husband was sleeping so well and I didn’t want ambulance sirens coming to my house in the middle of the night, so I “toughed it out” until I was able to breathe a bit better, then went back to sleep! AAAAARRRGH!

    Mary: Interestingly, asthmatics have been found in studies to routinely underestimate the severity of their disease. I suffer from mild asthma myself and can attest to the truth of this finding. It’s so fascinating, isn’t it, how the smallest things (like not wanting to wake your husband) can supply the final push that solidifies our belief that we don’t need help when we really do.


  • This also relates to insurance plans designed to make the patient consider the cost of treatment. I have a HSA account combined with a high deductible insurance plan. As I am on the hook for the first $1200 each year, the temptation is to think “I will wait until tommorrow morning, next week, etc., and see if gets better.” Totally appropriate for a mild cough, sniffles, etc. Perhaps fatal for a pain in the calf (DVT) or chest pains.

  • I imagine that disconfirmation bias coupled with no medical insurance or a high deductible can be particularly deadly in some situations.

    Jim: Yup.


  • Just a thought: how do you respond when a doctor does not take your symptoms seriously and you really do not know if they are serious? This happens a lot and, quite honestly, I hardly go to the doctor at all anymore because I’m almost embarrassed when they tell me nothing is wrong after a 5 minute exam. I know—get another doctor. I’m working on that. But this is a serious problem that maybe you could write more about. Doctors can be intimidating.

    Joy: Give this a try: When Doctors Don’t Know What’s Wrong.


  • Hello, Alex,
    It’s a delight to meet you here. I’m a practicing member of true Buddhism for more then 20 years and I’m happy to find a fellow Buddhist practitioner as a doctor with a open mind and also on-line. I have bookmarked this site and will keep following. My prayers for your healthy and happy life.



  • I am constantly needing to pinch my left breast to help me take a deep breath, and I very often struggle to speak when my heart is tired, it feels like a sharp pain when I try to speak. Do many people experience this?