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Head, heart or checklist? How self-reported decision-making strategies change according to speciality and grade: a cross-sectional survey of doctors


Purpose To identify and analyse variations in self-reported decision-making strategies between medical professionals of different specialty and grade.

Study design We conducted a cross-sectional survey of doctors of different specialities and grades at St. George’s Hospital, London, UK. We administered 226 questionnaires asking participants to assign proportions of their clinical decision-making behaviour to four strategies: intuitive, analytical, rule-based and creative.

Results We found that physicians said they used rule-based decision-making significantly more than did surgeons and anaesthetists (p = 0.025) and analytical decision-making strategies significantly less (p = 0.003). In addition, we found that both intuitive (p = 0.0005) and analytical (p = 0.0005) decision-making had positive associations with increasing experience, whereas rule-based decision-making was negatively associated with greater experience (p = 0.0005).

Conclusions Decision-making strategies may evolve with increasing clinical experience from a predominant use of rule-based approaches towards greater use of intuitive or analytical methods depending on the familiarity and acuity of the clinical situation. Rule-based strategies remain important for delivering evidence-based care, particularly for less experienced clinicians, and for physicians more than surgeons, possibly due to the greater availability and applicability of guidelines for medical problems. Anaesthetists and intensivists tend towards more analytical decision-making than physicians; an observation which might be attributable to the greater availability and use of objective data in the care environment. As part of broader training in non-technical skills and human factors, increasing awareness among trainees of medical decision-making models and their potential pitfalls might contribute to reducing the burden of medical error in terms of morbidity, mortality and litigation.

  • medical education & training
  • quality in healthcare
  • health & safety
  • human resource management

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