Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Doctors and programmers

One evening, I was watching Mystery Diagnosis on the Discovery Health Channel with my brother. The show is about people who have strange ailments, but doctors can't figure them out.

It got me to thinking about how people in my profession approach problem solving. The approach that computer programmers take is up to us, and it's pretty open-ended, but it's widely agreed that we use measuring tools — debuggers and profilers — to examine whether each little step is doing what it's supposed to be doing. It's also a widely accepted quip that one should never try to guess where a slowdown or a bug is happening, because one is usually wrong about it.

But that sort of guessing without detailed measuring seemed to be exactly what the doctors were doing. For one guy, they drew blood sample after blood sample, but it turned out to be a problem on the genetic level.

I wonder if there's some level of professional ego that keeps doctors from doing what would otherwise be considered sensible. If it took a lot of lobbying to get them to use checklists, I wouldn't be surprised if they think they've gone through too much training to actually rely on detailed measurements.

To be fair, though, doctors probably don't have much scope to apply deductive reasoning on the entirety of the systems they're working on. There are no "development" or "testing" patients where it's okay to mess up and start over. Everything they work on is in live production mode.

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