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Evidence and expertise


Correspondence: John Paley, Department of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Stirling, Stirling, FK9 4LA, UK.E-mail: <>


This paper evaluates attempts to defend established concepts of expertise and clinical judgement against the incursions of evidence-based practice. Two related arguments are considered. The first suggests that standard accounts of evidence-based practice imply an overly narrow view of ‘evidence’, and that a more inclusive concept, incorporating ‘patterns of knowing’ not recognised by the familiar evidence hierarchies, should be adopted. The second suggests that statistical generalisations cannot be applied non-problematically to individual patients in specific contexts, and points out that this is why we need clinical judgement. In evaluating the first argument, I propose a criterion for what counts as evidence. It is a minimalist criterion but the ‘patterns of knowing’, referred to in the literature, still fail to meet it. In evaluating the second argument, I will outline the powerful empirical reasons we have for thinking that decisions based on research evidence are usually better than decisions based on clinical judgement; and show that current efforts to rehabilitate clinical judgement seriously underestimate the strength of these reasons. By way of conclusion, I will sketch the ways in which the concept of expertise will have to be modified if we accept evidence-based practice as a template for health-care.