Spiritual Principles

Heuristics: How to Manage Complex Information

I was at church one day when I was asked to see a woman with shortness of breath. She had just finished work and came straight to the church. After talking with her I found out she had a history of anxiety and she certainly looked like she was having a panic attack.

However she also had a history of recurrent blood clots in the lung and had been off her blood thinners for several weeks due to financial issues.

Everyday a physician is put in a tough spot. He or she has to make definitive decisions about an unknowable future. In order to do this, physicians develop heuristics. Heuristics are rules thumb used to process complex information quickly especially in the midst of uncertainty.

One non-medical example that comes to mind. In baseball, when a player is catching a fly ball there are multiple factors coming into play. The outfielder must determine the ball’s speed, trajectory and spin. Furthermore, one must think of the wind resistance and then adjust his speed in order to catch up to the ball.

However, when scientists study how baseball players catch the ball they don’t consider all those factors. In fact, they do one thing. They keep their eye on the ball. Then they move toward the ball adjusting their speed while maintaining the angle of the gaze relative ground. This is called the gaze heuristic. All that complex information is distilled into a single focus – keeping their eye on the ball.

What is the heuristic for a Christian provider? It may be different for each person and I’d be curious to know what your heuristic is.

For me, the one rule of thumb I’ve tried to return again and again is this question, “What is the one thing God is calling me to do in this moment?”

I’ve found that question to be helpful when I wake up in the morning.

I found it helpful after I return from a long day at work and just want to binge on YouTube instead of connecting with my wife.

I’ve found it helpful when I’m with a patient and puzzled about what to do next.

What is your heuristic?

I sent the woman who was at church with shortness of breath to the emergency department. She had a panic attack. And I’m glad she’s alright.



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