Role of intuitive knowledge in the diagnostic reasoning of hospital specialists: a focus group study

BMJ Open. 2019 Jan 28;9(1):e022724. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-022724.


Background and objective: Intuition is an important part of human decision-making and can be explained by the dual-process theory where analytical and non-analytical reasoning processes continually interact. These processes can also be identified in physicians' diagnostic reasoning. The valuable role of intuition, including gut feelings, has been shown among general practitioners and nurses, but less is known about its role among hospital specialists. This study focused on the diagnostic reasoning of hospital specialists, how they value, experience and use intuition.

Design and participants: Twenty-eight hospital specialists in the Netherlands and Belgium participated in six focus groups. The discussions were recorded, transcribed verbatim and thematically coded. A circular and iterative analysis was applied until data saturation was achieved.

Results: Despite initial reservations regarding the term intuition, all participants agreed that intuition plays an important role in their diagnostic reasoning process. Many agreed that intuition could guide them, but were cautious not to be misguided. They were especially cautious since intuition does not have probative force, for example, in medicolegal situations. 'On-the-job experience' was regarded as a precondition to relying on intuition. Some participants viewed intuition as non-rational and invalid. All participants said that intuitive hunches must be followed by analytical reasoning. Cultural differences were not found. Both the doctor as a person and his/her specialty were seen as important determinants for using intuition.

Conclusions: Hospital specialists use intuitive elements in their diagnostic reasoning, in line with general human decision-making models. Nevertheless, they appear to disagree more on its role and value than previous research has shown among general practitioners. A better understanding of how to take advantage of intuition, while avoiding pitfalls, and how to develop 'skilled' intuition may improve the quality of hospital specialists' diagnostic reasoning.

Keywords: clinical reasoning; decision making; hospital specialists; intuition.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Belgium
  • Clinical Decision-Making*
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Intuition*
  • Netherlands
  • Problem Solving
  • Specialization*