How Solutionary Thinking Could Have Prevented a Medical Emergency blog title with blue image overlay

How Solutionary Thinking Could Have Prevented a Medical Emergency

In my last post, I wrote about several “instincts” identified by the late Hans Rosling that have the potential to steer us away from solutionary thinking—which enables us to solve problems effectively, ethically, and with the fewest unintended negative consequences.

One of these is the single perspective instinct. I discussed this instinct in the context of not relying on a sole source of information that might be inaccurate or biased when addressing problems. This tendency to rely on sources of information that reinforce a single perspective often prevents us from examining multiple viewpoints, bringing nuance to complex challenges, and collaborating across divides to solve problems.

On May 10, I realized how catastrophic this instinct can be not only for solving problems in our communities, countries, and world but also in our personal lives. My husband nearly died from epiglottitis, a throat infection (which killed George Washington), because of an over-reliance on a single perspective.

It began with a sore throat late in the afternoon on May 7—not his throat, but mine. The next morning I felt better, but my husband awoke with a very bad sore throat. This is where the single perspective kicked in. I assumed we had the same virus, and he was just having a bigger reaction, which is not uncommon when we come down with the same thing.

By late afternoon on the following day, he had a high fever, was having trouble breathing and swallowing, and said it felt like something was in his throat. I took him to the ER. They tested him for strep, COVID, RSV, and flu. All came back negative. I told them I had a minor sore throat a couple of days earlier, setting them on the same single perspective as my own. They looked in his mouth and felt his lymph nodes and didn’t see obvious signs of bacterial infection. So they inserted an IV and gave him fluids, Tylenol to bring his fever down, and a steroid to reduce the inflammation in his throat.

Even though my husband, a veterinarian and scientist, asked about the possibility of a throat abscess, they felt the symptoms were consistent with a virus and didn’t test his white blood cell count. Like me, they had fallen into the single perspective of a viral infection. I expressed concern about bringing him home given his condition, but they said they saw no reason for him to stay and sent him home with a steroid prescription.

They did not suggest this was the kind of emergency that necessitated taking him to a hospital with a trauma center, so I drove in the opposite direction back to the ER where he’d previously been treated. This time they did a CAT scan, revealing a throat abscess that required emergency surgery at the trauma hospital. They said he needed to get there by ambulance, but it took five-and-a-half hours after that diagnosis for the ambulance to arrive, and in that time my husband’s condition was steadily declining.

By the time the ambulance made it to the trauma hospital, 10 hours after I had left home to bring him to the doctor, his condition was grave. The anesthesiologist had to intubate him through his nose while he was conscious due to the danger of his airway closing under sedation. Fortunately, all went well, and the surgical team—for whom I will be forever grateful—was able to save his life.

After several days in the ICU, my husband is home and recovering physically. I am recovering emotionally. I feel tremendous guilt for not being the solutionary I try to help others become.

How Would Solutionary Thinking Have Helped?

Solutionary thinking is comprised primarily of critical, systems, strategic, and creative thinking. Solutionaries begin the process of solving a problem using critical and systems thinking to identify the causes of the problem. This is where solutionaries must be vigilant about avoiding the single perspective instinct.

Too often, we think we know the cause of a problem because of something we read, heard, watched, or experienced in the past. But discovering the causes of problems requires careful investigation.

The process can be like tracing a spider web. Frequently there are multiple intersecting systems that play a role, and we need to examine a range of possibilities rather than land on a single perspective out of habit (or instinct).

This is what happened in the case of my husband’s sore throat. I believed he had a viral infection because I had a sore throat that began just hours before his. This assumption was reinforced in the ER, and despite my misgivings, I took him home, not with the antibiotics he needed, but on steroids that could interfere with his immune system’s ability to fight the bacterial infection.

Because my husband is pretty stoic, it took too long to note the gravity of the situation. The single perspective instinct led me to be complacent. That he couldn’t swallow should have been alarming, but it didn’t occur to us yet that we might have gone down the wrong causal path. Because we were on the wrong path, we were employing the wrong solution.

When solutionaries develop and then implement their solutions, they must continually evaluate them to determine if they’ve chosen a solutionary solution, one that addresses the root and/or systemic causes and solves the problem in a way that does the most good and the least harm.

Although It took too long for me to realize we needed a different solution, we were fortunate to have had just enough time to find a solution that would work.

Here are the lessons I learned during the crisis to help me avoid the single perspective instinct in the future. These lessons are applicable to all of us who seek to be solutionaries:

  1. Pay close attention to conflicting or confounding variables that challenge your single perspective. Don’t ignore these variables out of habit, convenience, or instinct.
  2. Stay flexible in your thinking so you avoid becoming attached to your initial perspective and are able to be open to new information as it arises.
  3. Continually evaluate your solution so you can pivot if it’s not working.

Had I kept my solutionary mindset intact during this emergency, my husband would have received the critical care he needed much sooner and not in a life-threatening way. So, too, with other crises. Many challenges confront the world, and some constitute emergencies. Instead of reacting from a single perspective that may lead us to a quick but unsuccessful fix, we stand a better chance of successfully solving the problems we face if we cultivate solutionary thinking.

Originally posted on Psychology Today on May 20, 2024