When it comes to cancer, identifying the signs early can make the difference between a patient’s life and death. Unfortunately, even experienced medical practitioners may overlook evidence that may be right in front of them.
A recent psychological study found that radiologists may miss abnormalities in patient scans due to a phenomenon researchers call inattentional blindness.
What is inattentional blindness?
Because the human brain takes in more visual information than it can fully process at once, it may filter out details before the viewer becomes conscious of them. For instance, a driver performing a passing maneuver may collide with a motorcyclist because he or she was looking out for other cars, not smaller vehicles or pedestrians. Psychologists call the phenomenon of overlooking objects that are in plain sight inattentional blindness.
How might inattentional blindness impact cancer diagnoses?
Inattentional blindness may affect medical practitioners as well. In a recent study focused on radiologists, researchers asked a group of physicians to examine chest CT scans for signs of lung cancer. However, one-third of participants missed a lymph node abnormality and two-thirds failed to notice a potentially cancerous breast mass in the same CT image.
With early detection, many types of cancer may be treatable. However, if a physician fails to notice the signs until the disease has progressed, patients may need to undergo invasive, painful and expensive procedures to recover. In other cases, an individual’s condition may already be terminal.
Cancer patients and their families should know that medical providers may be legally liable if their negligence results in a delayed or missed diagnosis.