09/27/2012 05:45 pm ET

Why Doctors Should Consider Their Gut Feelings

Doctors: If you have a sneaking suspicion something is off when seeing a pediatric patient with an infection, follow your gut.

That's the conclusion of a new study published online in the British Medical Journal, conducted by scientists from the University of Oxford in England and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.

"Gut feeling is an additional tool for GPs [general practitioners] that takes more into account than just the purely clinical presentation," study researcher Dr. Ann Van den Bruel, of the Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford, said in a statement. "It is important that gut feeling is recognized as such and considered a valid argument for taking action."

The study included 3,369 kids and teens under 16 who were sick, but not severely so, in Belgium. Of all those kids, six went on to have some kind of serious infection and had to be hospitalized.

The researchers found that in two of these six cases, if the doctors had acted on their gut feelings upon seeing the children, it could have prevented their serious infection and hospital stay. However, preventing these two cases would have been at the cost of 44 false alarms (where the doctors' gut feeling would have ended up being nothing).

But even still researchers said in the study that "gut feeling has the potential to significantly reduce the number of missed cases without causing an unmanageable number of false alarms."

The researchers also said that the way the child looked, his or her breathing, and his or her convulsion history -- coupled with how worried the parents were -- assisted the doctors' gut feeling.

"Although clinicians throughout Europe mention gut feelings in their daily practice, our observation of colleagues suggests that the diagnostic value of this intuitive response is often dismissed. Even experienced clinicians need to be clear about the red flag properties of gut feelings," the researchers wrote in the study. "Gut feelings should not be ignored but used in decision making."



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