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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: October 2014

5 - Interpreting diagnostic information


The interpretation of new information depends on what was already known about the patient.

Harold Sox

Diagnostic information and probability revision

Physicians have at their disposal an enormous variety of diagnostic information to guide them in decision making. Diagnostic information comes from talking to the patient (symptoms, such as pain, nausea, and breathlessness), examining the patient (signs, such as abdominal tenderness, fever, and blood pressure), and from diagnostic tests (such as blood tests, X-rays, and electrocardiograms (ECGs)) and screening tests (such as Papanicolaou smears for cervical cancer or cholesterol measurements).

Physicians are not the only ones that have to interpret diagnostic information. Public policy makers in health care are equally concerned with understanding the performance of diagnostic tests. If, for example, a policy maker is considering a screening program for lung cancer, he/she will need to understand the performance of the diagnostic tests that can detect lung cancer in an early phase of the disease. In public policy making, other types of ‘diagnostic tests’ may also be relevant. For example, a survey with a questionnaire in a population sample can be considered analogous to a diagnostic test. And performing a trial to determine the efficacy of a treatment is in fact a ‘test’ with the goal of getting more information about that treatment.

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