This paper examines UK and US primary care doctors' decision-making about older (aged 75 years) and midlife (aged 55 years) patients presenting with coronary heart disease (CHD). Using an analytic approach based on conceptualising clinical decision-making as a classification process, it explores the ways in which doctors' cognitive processes contribute to ageism in health-care at three key decision points during consultations. In each country, 56 randomly selected doctors were shown videotaped vignettes of actors portraying patients with CHD. The patients' ages (55 or 75 years), gender, ethnicity and social class were varied systematically. During the interviews, doctors gave free-recall accounts of their decision-making. The results do not establish that there was substantial ageism in the doctors' decisions, but rather suggest that diagnostic processes pay insufficient attention to the significance of older patients' age and its association with the likelihood of co-morbidity and atypical disease presentations. The doctors also demonstrated more limited use of ‘knowledge structures’ when diagnosing older than midlife patients. With respect to interventions, differences in the national health-care systems rather than patients' age accounted for the differences in doctors' decisions. US doctors were significantly more concerned about the potential for adverse outcomes if important diagnoses were untreated, while UK general practitioners cited greater difficulty in accessing diagnostic tests
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