Why our opinions get us in trouble

“The history of human opinion is scarcely anything more than the history of human errors,” Voltaire said a long time ago.

Health professionals are trained to give opinions. It’s what we do every day in caring for our patients and leading our teams. Sometimes, however, it’s better not to give an opinion – or at least sit on it for a while.

Admittedly this is not always easy to combine with busy clinics, fast-paced lifestyles, opinion-based social media and rapid news cycles.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman described two ways of thinking in his well-known book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’.

The first method, which he called system one, is fast, intuitive, runs automatically and cannot be switched off. It generates first impressions and intuitions based on experience. It is however subject to errors and biases and is poor at performing statistical estimates.

The second way of thinking, referred to as system two, takes more conscious effort and time. It is normally in low-effort mode but when system one runs into difficulty, system two will be engaged.

The two systems can work effectively together, as long as we are aware that our first guess, based on system one thinking, may not always be right and that we need to verify it by applying more analytical system two thinking.

The challenge, as I see it is, to have an opinion and an open mind at the same time.

This is an edited version of an article originally published on NewsGP.

Everybody has an opinion about their GP

Do you know that situation – usually at a party – when someone tells you what they do for a living, and mention a cool sounding job description like ‘product innovation manager’ or ‘advertising account executive’? I always want to know: what does that mean and what do you actually do?

Well, people never ask me what I do when I say I’m a GP. Instead, they usually tell me what their GP does. Or did. Or said.

Everybody always knows what I do, and that’s not surprising because the Australian general practice statistics are mind-blowing: Over 134 million GP consultations take place each year. Every year almost 9 out of 10 Australians make at least one contact with a general practitioner.

Professor Max Kamien said in the latest BEACH study:

“Mothers, children, the elderly and those with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma and hypertension, have many more contacts than that. As a result of these personal contacts everyone has a view about general practice. Ministers of Health have been known to base their views about general practice on their contact with their own GP.

I’m privileged to have a job that’s smack-bang in the middle of life. One could indeed argue that we’re specialists in life, as we deal with just about everything: mental health, paediatrics, cancer, skin disorders, respiratory problems, grief, heart failure, domestic violence, emergencies, pregnancy, end-of-life care, immunisations, screening… you name it.

The latests RACGP commercial tells the story of diversity – the diversity of GPs, their patients and their conditions. I love the commercial because it captures in 60 seconds the wide range of issues people bring to the consulting room of the family doctor.

So if you want to find out what really happens in my office, have a look at this video.