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Friedman CP, Elstein AS, Wolf FM, et al. Enhancement of Clinicians' Diagnostic Reasoning by Computer-Based Consultation: A Multisite Study of 2 Systems. JAMA. 1999;282(19):1851–1856. doi:10.1001/jama.282.19.1851
Author Affiliations: Center for Biomedical Informatics and Department of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pa (Dr Friedman and Mr Abraham); Departments of Medical Education (Dr Elstein) and Medicine (Dr Heckerling), University of Illinois, Chicago; Division of Medical Informatics, Department of Medical Education, University of Washington, Seattle (Dr Wolf); Departments of Nutrition (Dr Murphy) and Medicine (Dr Miller), University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Department of Psychology, Indiana University, South Bend (Dr Franz); and Department of Medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Dr Fine).
Context Computer-based diagnostic decision support systems (DSSs) were developed
to improve health care quality by providing accurate, useful, and timely diagnostic
information to clinicians. However, most studies have emphasized the accuracy
of the computer system alone, without placing clinicians in the role of direct
Objective To explore the extent to which consultations with DSSs improve clinicians'
diagnostic hypotheses in a set of diagnostically challenging cases.
Design Partially randomized controlled trial conducted in a laboratory setting,
using a prospective balanced experimental design in 1995-1998.
Setting Three academic medical centers, none of which were involved in the development
of the DSSs.
Participants A total of 216 physicians: 72 at each site, including 24 internal medicine
faculty members, 24 senior residents, and 24 fourth-year medical students.
One physician's data were lost to analysis.
Intervention Two DSSs, ILIAD (version 4.2) and Quick Medical Reference (QMR; version
3.7.1), were used by participants for diagnostic evaluation of a total of
36 cases based on actual patients. After training, each subject evaluated
9 of the 36 cases, first without and then using a DSS, and suggested an ordered
list of diagnostic hypotheses after each evaluation.
Main Outcome Measure Diagnostic accuracy, measured as the presence of the correct diagnosis
on the hypothesis list and also using a derived diagnostic quality score,
before and after consultation with the DSSs.
Results Correct diagnoses appeared in subjects' hypothesis lists for 39.5% of
cases prior to consultation and 45.4% of cases after consultation. Subjects'
mean diagnostic quality scores increased from 5.7 (95% confidence interval
[CI], 5.5-5.9) to 6.1 (95% CI, 5.9-6.3) (effect size: Cohen d = 0.32; 95%
CI, 0.23-0.41; P<.001). Larger increases (P = .048) were observed for students than for residents
and faculty. Effect size varied significantly (P<.02)
by DSS (Cohen d = 0.20; 95% CI, 0.08-0.32 for ILIAD vs Cohen d = 0.45; 95%
CI, 0.31-0.59 for QMR).
Conclusions Our study supports the idea that "hands-on" use of diagnostic DSSs can
influence diagnostic reasoning of clinicians. The larger effect for students
suggests a possible educational role for these systems.
Computer-based decision support systems (DSSs) seek to improve the quality
of health care by providing accurate, useful, and timely advice to clinicians.
In a typical DSS, an explicit representation of medical knowledge is applied
to the specific circumstances of a case to provide advice to clinicians regarding
the diagnosis or management of that case. Over the past 3 decades, several
DSSs have addressed medical diagnosis1-9;
however, the value of these systems to clinical medicine remains an open question.10 In part, the question remains because diagnostic
DSSs have been evaluated with emphasis on the computer system itself. These
studies emphasized how often a system, in the hands of expert users, could
identify the correct diagnosis.5,11
The present investigation explores the value of DSSs to clinicians, who are
ultimately responsible for making diagnoses, by placing these clinicians in
the role of direct system users.12-14
With this focus, the question of primary interest is the extent to which the
system improves the diagnostic hypotheses of clinicians, not the extent to
which its advice is "correct."
This approach mirrors the evolving concept of the role DSSs can play
in clinical practice. In the 1970s and 1980s, these systems were largely conceived
as "oracles," with clinicians seen as passive recipients of the systems' advice.15,16 Over time, however, this view of
DSSs was seen as too narrow and mechanistic.15
Diagnoses would continue to be made by people, not machines, and a successful
DSS must establish a productive partnership with the clinician. From this
perspective, several new issues arise to direct the evaluation of DSSs.
First, a clinician's own medical knowledge plays a critical role in
a DSS consultation. Revised diagnoses resulting from consultations are a joint
function of what the clinician knows and whatever information is provided
by the DSS.17,18 Diagnostic DSSs
may or may not have the "intelligence" to offer suggestions useful to experienced
clinicians on difficult cases that these clinicians cannot diagnose when unassisted.
It is unclear how useful such systems will be to medical students who must
integrate a system's advice with their own limited knowledge base.
Second, variation in the ways clinician-users might interact with the
DSS becomes important. The system's advice, and thus its potential value,
depends on how users can convey to the DSS their personal understanding of
a case by selectively entering clinical findings and choosing specific system
Third, a DSS consultation may have both beneficial and detrimental effects
on a clinician's reasoning. The DSS may offer persuasive advice in the form
of an appealing but incorrect diagnosis. If this incorrect advice is accepted
or even seriously considered by the clinician, the system's effect may actually
Recent systematic reviews21,22
of computer-based DSSs indicate that previous studies have largely subscribed
to the oracle model and have not addressed the issues listed above. With DSSs
now distributed commercially on CD-ROM and over the Internet, it is important
to deepen understanding of their potential to assist clinicians more directly.23,24
The central question guiding our investigation was: To what extent can
consultations using diagnostic DSSs, with clinicians in training or practice
as system users, improve the quality of diagnostic hypotheses over a set of
challenging cases? We examined this question with 2 mature DSSs and subjects
at 3 levels of experience from 3 medical centers; none of the centers was
the development site of either system. We hypothesized that effects of DSS
consultations would depend on the subjects' experience levels, with greater
effects for less experienced subjects. We had no a priori expectations regarding
the DSSs, but recognized that substantial differences in their design could
lead to differing effects. The nature of the research design required that
we also consider the extent to which observed effects on diagnostic reasoning
were attributable to DSS advice vs rethinking about the case.
We used an experimental procedure to obtain clinicians' diagnostic hypotheses
on an assigned set of cases both before and after DSS consultation. The effect
of the consultation was determined by comparing subjects' preconsultation
and postconsultation diagnostic hypotheses. A balanced research design allowed
exploration of these effects in relation to clinicians' experience level and
DSS used. New quantitative measures of the quality of diagnostic hypotheses,
designed to be sensitive to subtle but potentially significant changes in
diagnostic reasoning, were developed and used in this work.
The study was based at 3 academic medical centers: the University of
Illinois (Chicago), the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), and the University
of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). Researchers at each site included a principal
investigator experienced in medical informatics, a general internist coinvestigator,
and collaborators responsible for subject training, recruitment, and data
collection. (Two of the principal investigators and 1 collaborator moved to
new institutions prior to completion of the study. These relocations had no
effect on data collection procedures.)
The physician coinvestigators, working as a team, directed the identification
and wrote the summaries of 36 cases (12 from each site) used in the study.
All cases were based on actual patients. We sought difficult cases so that
DSS consultations would have potential to engender improvement.
Across the sites, the coinvestigators identified 58 cases with known
diagnoses based on a definitive test, clinical follow-up, or autopsy, and
perceived to be diagnostically challenging. Four of these cases had final
diagnoses outside the DSS knowledge bases and were eliminated. Further considerations
of breadth and redundancy of diagnoses narrowed the candidate list to 43 cases.
For each remaining case, a clinician coinvestigator at the site of origin
wrote a 2- to 5-page summary including salient history and physical findings,
laboratory results, and radiological and other diagnostic studies. The summaries
also included ample nonsalient data to avoid cueing. The person who wrote
the abstracts deleted from the summary any known findings, such as a positive
biopsy, that would have made the diagnosis trivial for clinicians and probably
for the DSSs as well. These deletions (mean: 1.7 items per case) were made
without reference to either DSS.
The 3 coinvestigators subsequently reviewed and rated all case summaries
for perceived difficulty using a 7-point scale. Review of the averaged ratings
led to elimination of 6 cases judged to be insufficiently challenging, and
1 judged to be too difficult. The 36 cases remaining for use in the study
were divided into 4 balanced clusters of 9 cases each. The clusters contained
3 cases from each site, included a variety of organ system etiologies, and
were equated for perceived difficulty using the aggregated ratings.
We selected ILIAD and Quick Medical Reference (QMR), 2 diagnostic DSSs
that were mature, well described in the literature, and available commercially
for use by physicians in training and practice.5,8,11,16,25-27
Both systems offered sophisticated graphical interfaces to facilitate their
use and generated user interaction logs as automated tools for data collection.
ILIAD's knowledge representation derives from statistical data used
in concert with expert knowledge of clinicians that were expressed as rules.8 In consultation mode, users enter clinical findings
about a case using an interface that allows both free-text and menu-based
entry. The system generates a rank-ordered list of diagnostic hypotheses,
each with estimated probability. ILIAD can suggest next steps in a work-up
that would clarify the differential. Users can also browse ILIAD's representation
of each disease. The version of ILIAD (4.2 for Macintosh) used in this study
contained explicit representations of 920 diseases.
Knowledge representation of QMR is derived from systematic review of
the published literature supplemented by the expert knowledge of selected
clinicians.5 Disease representations of QMR
are not statistical; relationships between findings and diseases are expressed
on heuristic 5-point scales. The QMR can be used in a case analysis mode to
generate a ranked list of potential diagnoses for an entered set of case findings.
The system offers several special functions, such as comparison and contrast
of pairs of diseases, designed to help clinicians refine their diagnoses.
The version of QMR (3.7.1 for Windows) used in this study contained explicit
representations of 623 diseases.
Data were collected from 1995 to 1998. At each of the 3 sites and for
each of the 2 DSSs, we recruited 12 faculty physicians, all general internists;
12 internal medicine residents, either late in their second training year
or early in their third year; and 12 fourth-year medical students. The faculty
had at least 2 years of postresidency clinical experience (mean, 11 years;
range, 2-32 years). Subjects were offered modest stipends commensurate with
experience level ($200 for faculty, $150 for residents, $50 for students).
All subjects were volunteers. By self-report on a questionnaire completed
prior to data collection, 7 of the 216 subjects (3 faculty, 4 residents) reported
regular use of DSSs. At one institution (Michigan) individual subjects were
formally consented into the study. At the other institutions, the research
was considered exempt and thus implied consent was obtained from those agreeing
Each subject was individually trained on his/her assigned DSS. A standardized
training protocol, with a checklist of competencies, was used at all sites.
The trainers documented mastery of all competencies and assisted subjects
in working 3 practice cases prior to the start of data collection.
Each subject was assigned randomly to a case cluster, with assignment
balanced such that clusters were equally represented across sites and experience
levels. For each case in the assigned cluster, the subject was first asked
to read the summary and then to generate a list of up to 6 ordered diagnostic
hypotheses. The subject then used the DSS to explore the case in any way he/she
considered potentially helpful. After using the DSS, the subject generated
another diagnostic hypothesis list. The subject then moved onto the next assigned
case. We retained computer log files of user entries and the diagnoses proposed
by the DSS for each case.
All data collection sessions were proctored and no time limits were
imposed on subjects. Median time to complete the initial work on a case, without
the DSS, was 8 minutes (semi-interquartile range, 5-10 minutes). Median time
for the second iteration, using the DSS, was 22 minutes (semi-interquartile
range, 15-30 minutes).
We used 2 measurements for assessing subjects' diagnostic hypothesis
lists. The first, a binary measure, credited the subject with a correct diagnosis
if the correct diagnosis—or 1 considered almost synonymous (eg, polymyalgia
rheumatica vs giant cell arteritis)—appeared anywhere in the subject's
We also developed and validated a continuous diagnostic quality score
that would be sensitive to more subtle but potentially important changes in
the quality of subjects' diagnostic reasoning. For a subject's ordered list
of diagnostic hypotheses, the quality score was composed of 2 components.
The first component awarded up to 7 points based on the plausibility of each
diagnosis listed, whether correct or incorrect, as judged by consensus of
the clinical coinvestigators. The second awarded up to 6 points based on the
location of the correct diagnosis, if present. The resulting metric awarded
a maximum of 13 points for a perfect hypothesis list comprising only the correct
diagnosis, and 1 point for a list comprising only irrelevant diagnoses. This
metric, described in detail elsewhere, has been found to be reliable and valid.28
Three methods of analysis provide complementary views of the results.
The first used the binary measure with cases as the unit of analysis to provide
a directly interpretable portrayal of DSS effects on the subjects' diagnostic
reasoning. We calculated the fractions of cases in which the correct diagnosis
appeared anywhere in the subjects' hypothesis lists, and compared these fractions
before and after DSS consultation. These data were analyzed separately for
the 3 clinical experience levels and each DSS.
The second method used the more sensitive diagnostic quality scores
as the outcome variable and subjects as the unit of analysis. Over the 9 cases
each subject completed, we averaged separately the preconsultation and postconsultation
quality scores and conducted on these data a 3-way mixed-model analysis of
variance.29 For this analysis, occasion (preconsultation
vs postconsultation) was a within-subjects factor. Clinical experience level
and assigned DSS were between-subjects factors. We selectively used paired t tests to explore differences between subgroups.30 Effect sizes were computed as standardized differences
between group means and were expressed using the Cohen d statistic.31 Statistical power to detect medium effects (Cohen
d = 0.5; P<.05) was estimated at 0.95 for the
all-subjects comparison of diagnostic accuracy scores before and after consultation,
at 0.74 for differences across experience levels, and at 0.90 for differences
between DSSs.31 While subjects' sites and assigned
case clusters were also factors in the experiment, these factors did not affect
the primary results and were not included in the analysis reported here.
The third analysis sought to elucidate whether the effects of consultations
might be attributed to each DSS's advice. Using system log files, we reproduced
the diagnostic hypothesis list displayed by each DSS during each subject's
work on each case. We differentiated cases in which the DSS displayed the
correct diagnosis among its top 20 hypotheses from cases in which the correct
diagnosis was not displayed. In the former cases, the correct diagnosis was
there to be seen; thus, the DSSs had significant potential to be helpful.
In the latter cases, the value of each DSS's advice was more doubtful. We
then compared preconsultation with postconsultation changes in diagnostic
quality scores for these 2 subsets of cases. If the changes were comparable
for the 2 subsets, this would suggest that the changes were due to sources
other than each DSS's advice. If the changes were greater for the cases where
the DSSs had greater potential to be helpful, this would argue that the particular
system's advice was the causal factor.
The complete data set included 1934 cases generated by 215
subjects. (All data that were generated by 1 faculty subject and the data
for 1 case for 1 student were not properly recorded and were thus lost to
the analysis.) A correct diagnosis appeared in subjects' hypothesis lists
for 764 cases (39.5%) before DSS consultation, increasing to 879 cases (45.4%)
after consultation (Table 1).
Positive consultations, where the correct diagnosis was present after consultation
but not before, were observed for 232 cases (12.0%); negative consultations,
where the correct diagnosis was present before consultation but not after,
were observed in 117 cases (6.0%). The overall consultation effect (net gain)
is 115 cases (5.9%). Preconsultation performance, based on subjects' personal
knowledge only, increased with experience level. The largest consultation
effects were observed for the students, with smaller effects for residents
and faculty. Larger consultation effects were observed in subjects using QMR.
Table 2 provides mean preconsultation
and postconsultation diagnostic quality scores and consultation effect sizes,
broken down by subjects' experience level and DSS used. Statistical main effects
and interactions are discussed below.
Scores after consultation exceeded scores before consultation across
the entire experiment (test of main effect for occasion: F1,209=
48.0; P<.001), with an effect size (Cohen d) of
A significant interaction of occasion with experience level (F2,209= 3.1; P = .048) indicates that the consultation
effect sizes (faculty, 0.25; residents, 0.31; students, 0.59) varied by experience
level. The effect sizes within each experience level are statistically significant
(P<.005 by 3 paired t
tests). Both before and after consultation, quality scores were higher for
subjects with greater levels of clinical experience (test of main effect for
experience level: F2,209= 48.7; P<.001).
A significant interaction of occasion with DSS (F1,209= 5.6; P<.02) indicates that the consultation effect size was
greater for QMR (d = 0.45) than ILIAD (d = 0.20). The effect sizes for each
DSS are statistically significant (P<.001 by 2
paired t tests). All other effects in the analysis
model were not significant.
As used by subjects, the DSSs displayed the correct diagnosis for 785
(40.6%) of 1934 cases (39.7% for faculty; residents, 43.2%; students, 38.8%).
For those cases where the DSS displayed the correct diagnosis, diagnostic
quality scores expressed as mean (95% confidence interval [CI]) increased
significantly from 6.86 (95% CI, 6.47-7.25) to 8.14 (95% CI, 7.77-8.51) (P<.001 by paired t test). For
the 1149 cases where DSSs did not display the correct diagnosis, mean quality
scores were essentially unchanged: 5.15 (95% CI, 4.90-5.40) before consultation
and 4.95 (95% CI, 4.70-5.20) after consultation. This implies that the DSSs
were influential in generating the measured increases. Cases where the DSS
did and did not display the correct diagnosis were associated with significantly
different mean preconsultation quality scores (P<.001
by t test). Therefore, cases that were harder for
the subjects were also harder for the DSSs.
Across the full sample of clinicians and cases, DSS consultation had
a modest positive effect on diagnostic reasoning. The overall increase in
diagnostic quality scores (Cohen d = 0.32) was between the effect size typically
considered small (0.2) and medium (0.5) in magnitude.31
The cases used in the study proved, as designed, to be diagnostically challenging.
Experienced faculty subjects identified correct diagnoses (without DSS support)
for less than 50% of cases.
The positive consultation effects were obtained even though the DSSs,
as used by the study subjects, generated the correct diagnosis in 41% of cases.
By studying the consultation model where each DSS's advice is filtered through
human cognition, rather than the oracle model, we see how a DSS does not have
to be invariably correct to be helpful. However, this generates a process
that works in both directions. While clinicians could selectively incorporate
sound advice and ignore unhelpful advice, more often than the reverse, negative
consultations did occur in a small percentage of cases. The negative consultations
were equally prevalent across levels of experience.
As hypothesized, the magnitude of consultation effects was related to
clinical experience, although positive effects for all 3 levels were statistically
significant. The larger effects for students suggest a possible role for these
DSSs in undergraduate medical education; for example, DSS consultations could
be illuminating to students who are researching cases and preparing presentations.
Students, despite their smaller personal knowledge base, were equally likely
as faculty to use the DSSs in ways that induced correct diagnoses from the
Although a head-to-head comparison of systems was not a primary intent
of this study, we observed consultation effects that were larger for QMR than
ILIAD. This effect could have multiple causes, since the tested DSSs differ
profoundly in their models for representing medical knowledge and algorithms
to generate advice, as well as the interfaces used to control them.
This study used a repeated-measure research design that models the process
of clinical consultation. Repeated-measure designs can generate rethinking
effects whereby subjects' performances after consultation increase as a consequence
of additional time spent with the case. The significant quality score increases
seen in the cases where the DSSs generated the correct diagnosis, with no
increase seen in the other cases, offers evidence to support the view that
most of the observed effect was due to the DSS consultation rather than rethinking.
Several limitations of this study derived from deliberate choices made
in structuring the work. Our subjects reported little experience with diagnostic
DSSs prior to the training we provided. In this regard, we believe they typified
physicians in training and practice across the country, but DSS users more
experienced than those in our study may have generated different results with
these cases. The subjects were based in either a manifestly academic setting
or had strong ties to the academic setting through clinical appointments with
teaching responsibilities. As such, the study results may not generalize to
other practice venues. The DSSs and cases address only the domain of difficult
cases in internal medicine. Similar work applied to other medical specialties
may yield different results. The DSSs chosen for the study, while considered
the most mature and available of those extant at the time, may not be the
most effective DSSs available today. Updated versions of the 2 DSSs we tested
may outperform, or underperform, their predecessors studied here. Also, the
report used only 1 lens through which DSS effects might be examined. Diagnostic
hypothesis formation is but 1 aspect of the clinical reasoning process. The
DSSs may be more useful in other ways, such as by suggesting tests and other
next steps in a patient evaluation.
Other limitations to this work derive from its conduct in the laboratory.
The case summaries used, although comprehensive and based on real patients,
were not complete medical records. In the practice of medicine, clinicians
would typically have access to more information about the patients than the
summaries provided. The motivation and thus the performance of the subjects
could have been somewhat different if the cases had been patients under the
clinicians' own care.
In summary, DSS consultation modestly enhanced the diagnostic reasoning
of subjects using the tested systems. Smaller effects for more experienced
physicians indicated that any case difficult enough to challenge an experienced
internist will likely also challenge the systems we studied. Although these
systems are clearly not infallible oracles, they may have useful roles in
the evolving world of computer-based information resources.
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