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27-04-2018 | Original Article | Uitgave 4/2018 Open Access

Perspectives on Medical Education 4/2018

Context and clinical reasoning

Understanding the medical student perspective

Perspectives on Medical Education > Uitgave 4/2018
Elexis McBee, Temple Ratcliffe, Lambert Schuwirth, Daniel O’Neill, Holly Meyer, Shelby J. Madden, Steven J. Durning
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The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the Department of Defense, or other federal agencies.



Studies have shown that a physician’s clinical reasoning performance can be influenced by contextual factors. We explored how the clinical reasoning performance of medical students was impacted by contextual factors in order to expand upon previous findings in resident and board certified physicians. Using situated cognition as the theoretical framework, our aim was to evaluate the verbalized clinical reasoning processes of medical students in order to describe what impact the presence of contextual factors has on their reasoning performance.


Seventeen medical student participants viewed three video recordings of clinical encounters portraying straightforward diagnostic cases in internal medicine with explicit contextual factors inserted. Participants completed a computerized post-encounter form as well as a think-aloud protocol. Three authors analyzed verbatim transcripts from the think-aloud protocols using a constant comparative approach. After iterative coding, utterances were analyzed and grouped into categories and themes.


Six categories and ten associated themes emerged, which demonstrated overlap with findings from previous studies in resident and attending physicians. Four overlapping categories included emotional disturbances, behavioural inferences about the patient, doctor-patient relationship, and difficulty with closure. Two new categories emerged to include anchoring and misinterpretation of data.


The presence of contextual factors appeared to impact clinical reasoning performance in medical students. The data suggest that a contextual factor can be innate to the clinical scenario, consistent with situated cognition theory. These findings build upon our understanding of clinical reasoning performance from both a theoretical and practical perspective.
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