Diagnostic intuition is a rapid, non-analytic, unconscious mode of reasoning. A small body of evidence points to the ubiquity of intuition, and its usefulness in generating diagnostic hypotheses and ascertaining severity of illness. Little is known about how experienced physicians understand this phenomenon, and how they work with it in clinical practice.
Descriptions of how experienced physicians perceive their use of diagnostic intuition in clinical practice were elicited through interviews conducted with 30 physicians in emergency, internal and family medicine. Each participant was asked to share stories of diagnostic intuition, including times when intuition was both correct and incorrect. Multiple coders conducted descriptive analysis to analyze the salient aspects of these stories.
Physicians provided descriptions of what diagnostic intuition is, when it occurs and what type of activity it prompts. From stories of correct intuition, a typology of four different types of intuition was identified: Sick/Not Sick, Something Not Right, Frame-shifting and Abduction. Most physician accounts of diagnostic intuition linked this phenomenon to non-analytic reasoning and emphasized the importance of experience in developing a trustworthy sense of intuition that can be used to effectively engage analytic reasoning to evaluate clinical evidence.
The participants recounted myriad stories of diagnostic intuition that alerted them to unusual diagnoses, previous diagnostic error or deleterious trajectories. While this qualitative study can offer no conclusions about the representativeness of these stories, it suggests that physicians perceive clinical intuition as beneficial for correcting and advancing diagnoses of both common and rare conditions.