Do patients’ faces influence General Practitioners’ cancer suspicions? A test of automatic processing of sociodemographic information

During short consultations GPs make quick decisions about the likelihood of cancer and patients’ facial cues are processed rapidly which may influence diagnosis. This study aimed to investigate whether patients’ facial characteristics influence the immediate perception of cancer risk by General Practitioners (GPs). A web-based binary forced choice method was used, where 82 GPs were presented with a series of pairs of face prototypes and asked to quickly select the patient more likely to have cancer, although no time limit was imposed. The faces were modified with respect to age, gender and ethnicity. When presented with a choice between two patients of differing ages, a significant majority of GPs selected the older patient as more likely to have cancer. Gender also influenced GP suspicion, however this was modified by age. The male patient was chosen as more likely to have cancer for young and middle aged patients, but significantly more likely to select the female patient in the older age category. They also suspected cancer more readily in young Caucasian males compared to young Asian males. Although a small study, the cognitive GP biases revealed in this study could be utilised in reducing diagnostic delay, especially in younger patients.

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