Drawing Boundaries: The Difficulty in Defining Clinical Reasoning

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Abstract

Clinical reasoning is an essential component of a health professional’s practice. Yet clinical reasoning research has produced a notably fragmented body of literature. In this article, the authors describe the pause-and-reflect exercise they undertook during the execution of a synthesis of the literature on clinical reasoning in the health professions. Confronted with the challenge of establishing a shared understanding of the nature and relevant components of clinical reasoning, members of the review team paused to independently generate their own personal definitions and conceptualizations of the construct. Here, the authors describe the variability of definitions and conceptualizations of clinical reasoning present within their own team. Drawing on an analogy from mathematics, they hypothesize that the presence of differing “boundary conditions” could help explain individuals’ differing conceptualizations of clinical reasoning and the fragmentation at play in the wider sphere of research on clinical reasoning. Specifically, boundary conditions refer to the practice of describing the conditions under which a given theory is expected to hold, or expected to have explanatory power. Given multiple theoretical frameworks, research methodologies, and assessment approaches contained within the clinical reasoning literature, different boundary conditions are likely at play. Open acknowledgment of different boundary conditions and explicit description of the conceptualization of clinical reasoning being adopted within a given study would improve research communication, support comprehensive approaches to teaching and assessing clinical reasoning, and perhaps encourage new collaborative partnerships among researchers who adopt different boundary conditions.

Written work prepared by employees of the Federal Government as part of their official duties is, under the U.S. Copyright Act, a “work of the United States Government” for which copyright protection under Title 17 of the United States Code is not available. As such, copyright does not extend to the contributions of employees of the Federal Government.

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