Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate Evidence base of clinical diagnosis

Clinical problem solving and diagnostic decision making: selective review of the cognitive literature

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 23 March 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:729
  1. Arthur S Elstein, professor (,
  2. Alan Schwarz, assistant professor of clinical decision making.
  1. Department of Medical Education, University of Illinois College of Medicine, Chicago, IL 60612-7309, USA
  1. Correspondence to: A S Elstein

    This is the fourth in a series of five articles

    This article reviews our current understanding of the cognitive processes involved in diagnostic reasoning in clinical medicine. It describes and analyses the psychological processes employed in identifying and solving diagnostic problems and reviews errors and pitfalls in diagnostic reasoning in the light of two particularly influential approaches: problem solving1, 2, 3 and decision making.4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Problem solving research was initially aimed at describing reasoning by expert physicians, to improve instruction of medical students and house officers. Psychological decision research has been influenced from the start by statistical models of reasoning under uncertainty, and has concentrated on identifying departures from these standards.

    Summary points

    Problem solving and decision making are two paradigms for psychological research on clinical reasoning, each with its own assumptions and methods

    The choice of strategy for diagnostic problem solving depends on the perceived difficulty of the case and on knowledge of content as well as strategy

    Final conclusions should depend both on prior belief and strength of the evidence

    Conclusions reached by Bayes's theorem and clinical intuition may conflict

    Because of cognitive limitations, systematic biases and errors result from employing simpler rather than more complex cognitive strategies

    Evidence based medicine applies decision theory to clinical diagnosis

    Problem solving

    Diagnosis as selecting a hypothesis

    The earliest psychological formulation viewed diagnostic reasoning as a process of testing hypotheses. Solutions to difficult diagnostic problems were found by generating a limited number of hypotheses early in the diagnostic process and using them to guide subsequent collection of data.1 Each hypothesis can be used to predict what additional findings ought to be present if it were true, and the diagnostic process is a guided search for these findings. Experienced physicians form hypotheses and their diagnostic plan rapidly, and the …

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