Classifying clinical decision making: interpreting nursing intuition, heuristics and medical diagnosis


Christopher D. Buckingham, Computer Science, University of Aston, Aston Triangle, Birmingham B4 7ET, England. E-mail:


Classifying clinical decision making: interpreting nursing intuition, heuristics and medical diagnosis

This is the second of two linked papers exploring decision making in nursing. The first paper, ‘Classifying clinical decision making: a unifying approach’ investigated difficulties with applying a range of decision-making theories to nursing practice. This is due to the diversity of terminology and theoretical concepts used, which militate against nurses being able to compare the outcomes of decisions analysed within different frameworks. It is therefore problematic for nurses to assess how good their decisions are, and where improvements can be made. However, despite the range of nomenclature, it was argued that there are underlying similarities between all theories of decision processes and that these should be exposed through integration within a single explanatory framework. A proposed solution was to use a general model of psychological classification to clarify and compare terms, concepts and processes identified across the different theories. The unifying framework of classification was described and this paper operationalizes it to demonstrate how different approaches to clinical decision making can be re-interpreted as classification behaviour. Particular attention is focused on classification in nursing, and on re-evaluating heuristic reasoning, which has been particularly prone to theoretical and terminological confusion. Demonstrating similarities in how different disciplines make decisions should promote improved multidisciplinary collaboration and a weakening of clinical elitism, thereby enhancing organizational effectiveness in health care and nurses’ professional status. This is particularly important as nurses’ roles continue to expand to embrace elements of managerial, medical and therapeutic work. Analysing nurses’ decisions as classification behaviour will also enhance clinical effectiveness, and assist in making nurses’ expertise more visible. In addition, the classification framework explodes the myth that intuition, traditionally associated with nurses’ decision making, is less rational and scientific than other approaches.