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APR 26/2013

Diagnostics and the role of intuition

Diagnosticians are tasked with accurately reading a patient's symptoms so the source of their ailment can be treated as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment is often paramount for a full-recovery from life-threatening and uncommon diseases. However, it can be difficult for diagnosticians to determine between a most-likely condition and a more unusual illness.
If a diagnostician cannot immediately identify a patient's problem, they will need to know where to refer them or what tests to recommend to uncover the source of the symptoms. This relies on a balance of knowledge, experience and intuition - that is, the natural instinct that helps breakdown symptoms for an accurate diagnosis. Indeed, a patient's life and wellbeing can hinge on an accurate diagnosis, so doctors will want to hone their skills to ensure they are at peak performance at all times.

Dr Kathryn Montgomery, professor of medicine and professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in the US, gave her views on the role of intuition in making accurate diagnosis. She told Medscape: "The more knowledge and experience you have, the more fine-tuned your intuition will be. And the better your intuition, the more you'll know when and where to look for further information - studies, guidelines, conferences, or collegial consultations." 

Some diagnosticians may have a natural intuition that helped lead them towards this role, while others will build on it over the course of their career. As Dr Montgomery pointed out, experience and knowledge add to a diagnostician's intuition so that their day-to-day role improves their performance and instincts. Indeed, taking on a locum position could also enable diagnosticians to work on their intuition as they benefit from the experience of working in a variety of hospital settings alongside a diverse range of colleagues. All of these people will have their own skills and expertise which you may be able to learn from. 

Intuition, alongside experience and knowledge, will ultimately help diagnosticians to decipher between common and rare illnesses. While the most obvious and simplest diagnosis is often the right one, it can be the case that uncomplicated symptoms relate to an uncommon condition. On the other hand, complex symptoms that do not appear to point towards a common disease could, in fact, do just that. It is intuition that will give you an edge when your knowledge and experience has been tested to the extent you still have little idea of the cause of the symptoms.

Technology is also on hand to help diagnosticians make accurate diagnoses. There is no shame in referring to an algorithm to pin down a diagnosis. Indeed, this could strengthen your performance in the long run as you begin to identify more patterns between symptoms and their subsequent diagnoses. Talking to your peers will help too and it is often useful to listen to a more seasoned diagnostician's views when trying to make a diagnosis that is proving challenging. All this listening, talking and thinking will work to shape you as an excellent diagnostician so that in the future, juniors will be coming to you for your knowledge and intuitive skills.

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