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Evid Based Med. 2011 Dec;16(6):163-7. doi: 10.1136/ebm-2011-0007. Epub 2011 Aug 23.

A qualitative approach to Bayes' theorem.

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Section of General Internal Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts 02118, USA.


While decisions made according to Bayes' theorem are the academic normative standard, the theorem is rarely used explicitly in clinical practice. Yet the principles can be followed without intimidating mathematics. To do so, one can first categorise the prior-probability of the disease being tested for as very unlikely (less likely than 10%), unlikely (10-33%), uncertain (34-66%), likely (67-90%) or very likely (more likely than 90%). Usually, for disorders that are very unlikely or very likely, no further testing is needed. If the prior probability is unlikely, uncertain or likely, a test and a Bayesian-inspired update process incorporating the result can help. A positive result of a good test increases the probability of the disorder by one likelihood category (eg, from uncertain to likely) and a negative test decreases the probability by one category. If testing is needed to escape the extremes of likelihood (eg, a very unlikely but particularly dangerous condition or in the circumstance of population screening, or a very likely condition with a particularly noxious treatment), two tests may be needed to achieve. Negative results of tests with sensitivity ≥99% are sufficient to rule-out a diagnosis; positive results of tests with specificity ≥99% are sufficient to rule-in a diagnosis. This method overcomes some common heuristic errors: ignoring the base rate, probability adjustment errors and order effects. The simplicity of the method, while still adhering to the basic principles of Bayes' theorem, has the potential to increase its application in clinical practice.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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