Practice inquiry: clinical uncertainty as a focus for small-group learning and practice improvement

J Gen Intern Med. 2007 Feb;22(2):246-52. doi: 10.1007/s11606-006-0059-2.


Problem: Many primary care physicians in nonacademic settings lack a collegial forum for engaging the clinical uncertainties inherent in their work.

Program description: "Practice Inquiry" is proposed as a set of small-group, practice-based learning and improvement (PBLI) methods designed to help clinicians better manage case-based clinical uncertainty. Clinicians meet regularly at their offices/clinics to present dilemma cases, share clinical experience, review evidence for blending with experience, and draw implications for practice improvement. From 2001 through 2005, Practice Inquiry was introduced to sites in the San Francisco Bay Area as a demonstration effort. Meeting rosters, case logs, a feedback survey, and meeting field notes documented implementation and provided data for a formative, qualitative evaluation.

Program evaluation: Of the 30 sites approached, 14 held introductory meetings. As of summer 2006, 98 clinicians in 11 sites continue to hold regularly scheduled group meetings. Of the 118 patient cases presented in the seven oldest groups, clinician-patient relationship and treatment dilemmas were most common. Clinician feedback and meeting transcript data provided insights into how busy practitioners shared cases, developed trust, and learned new knowledge/skills for moving forward with patients.

Discussion: Ongoing clinician involvement suggests that Practice Inquiry is a feasible, acceptable, and potentially useful set of PBLI methods. Two of the Practice Inquiry's group learning tasks received comparatively less focus: integrating research evidence with clinical experience and tracking dilemma case outcomes. Future work should focus on reducing the methodological limitations of a demonstration effort and examining factors affecting clinician participation. Set-aside work time for clinicians, or other equally potent incentives, will be necessary for the further elaboration of these PBLI methods aimed at managing uncertainty.

MeSH terms

  • Data Collection / methods
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians, Family*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Problem-Based Learning / methods
  • Program Evaluation* / methods
  • Uncertainty*