Psychologists have known about the stress people undergo when making decisions for quite some time. Typically, they refer to this as decision fatigue. People’s clarity of thought during the process of coming to a decision deteriorates according to the amount of decisions they make in a given time. A recent study has found that doctors also experience this effect, with some serious implications, like higher education customer service.
Over the course of a day, a person can really only handle a certain amount of decisions. This can vary depending on how important the decisions are and how many are concentrated in a given period of time. Doctors obviously make more consequential decisions more often than people in most other professions, making them vulnerable to this effect.
A study in a pair of Boston hospitals looked specifically at how doctors prescribed antibiotics over the course of the day. Compared to the earlier hours of a shift, the later hours saw a marked increase in the number of antibiotics prescriptions. The decision fatigue effect increased with every hour on the job. This indicates that doctors tend to play it safe and default to antibiotics later in the day instead of making a more thorough evaluation of patients’ illnesses.
The study highlights that doctors face the same cognitive limitations that the rest of humanity does. Given the serious consequences decision fatigue could have on patients’ health and on antibacterial resistance, patients should try to communicate as clearly as possible with their physicians. Shorter shifts with plenty of rest and proper nutrition for doctors could go a long way in improving decision-making results as well.