Reviewing intuitive decision-making and uncertainty: the implications for medical education

Med Educ. 2002 Mar;36(3):216-24. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2923.2002.01140.x.


Context: Intuition and uncertainty are inescapable conditions of many instances of clinical decision- making. Under such conditions biases and heuristics may operate, distorting the decision-making process. Physicians and students are generally unaware of these influences.

Purpose: To review the extant literature regarding the role of uncertainty and intuition and associated biases on medical decision-making, to highlight the implications this holds for medical education.

Content: Using literature identified via Medline and Bioethicsline searches of the past 3 decades, this paper reviews the sources of uncertainty in clinical practice and the role of intuitive decision-making. A detailed description of associated heuristics and biases is provided, and linked with demonstrable examples from medical decision-making.

Conclusions: It is argued that although uncertainty can be reduced, it can never be completely eliminated from decision-making. Therefore most decision-making performed in medicine contains an irreducible intuitive element and is thus vulnerable to these biases and heuristics. Given that few medical curricula overtly address the process of medical decision-making, both medical students and physicians remain vulnerable to these effects on their own (and their patients') decision-making. Insight via education appears the major means in which to avoid distorting decision-making processes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence
  • Decision Making*
  • Education, Medical / standards
  • Humans
  • Mental Recall
  • Prejudice