An empirical puzzle has emerged over the last several decades of research on variation in clinical decision making involving mixed effects of physician experience. There is some evidence that physicians with greater experience may provide poorer quality care than their less experienced counterparts, as captured by various quality assurance measures. Physician experience is traditionally narrowly defined as years in practice or age, and there is a need for investigation into precisely what happens to physicians as they gain experience, including the reasoning and clinical skills acquired over time and the ways in which physicians consciously implement those skills into their work. In this study, we are concerned with 1) how physicians conceptualize and describe the meaning of their clinical experience, and 2) how they use their experience in clinical practice. To address these questions, we analyzed qualitative data drawn from in-depth interviews with physicians from the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany as a part of a larger factorial experiment of medical decision making for diabetes. Our results show that common measures of physician experience do not fully capture the skills physicians acquire over time or how they implement those skills in their clinical work. We found that what physicians actually gain over time is complex social, behavioral and intuitive wisdom as well as the ability to compare the present day patient against similar past patients. These active cognitive reasoning processes are essential components of a forward-looking research agenda in the area of physician experience and decision making. Guideline-based outcome measures, accompanied by underdeveloped age- and years-based definitions of experience, may prematurely conclude that more experienced physicians are providing deficient care while overlooking the ways in which they are providing more and better care than their less experienced counterparts.
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