Clinical reasoning models: what’s wrong with them?


I’ve been interested in clinical reasoning and models used in clinical reasoning for quite some time. Occupational therapy has several models, including the “occupational therapy problem solving process” by Lela Llorens, the Model of Human Occupation by Gary Kielhofner, and the Canadian Model of Occupational Performance by Polatajko, Townsend and Craik in 2007. All of these models were designed to support occupational therapy clinical reasoning processes, and to capture the essence of what occupational therapy is about.

When it comes to pain rehabilitation, I’ve found the occupational therapy models a little lacking in specificity for my clinical reasoning. I’ve also noticed similar problems with proposed clinical reasoning models for physiotherapy when considering pain.

Here’s the thing: if pain involves so many factors (call them biopsychosocial for want of a better all-encompassing term), and we don’t know which factors are relevant for this person at this time, clinical reasoning in pain rehabilitation is complex. Why? Well the problem with pain is that it’s full of ambiguity. Not so much for the person experiencing them, but certainly for the clinician trying to help.

Bear with me a minute. To me, clinical reasoning models help shape the factors we include and those we omit.

In writing that sentence I realise I’m assuming something crucial: that models are designed to help us predict and control what’s going on. Is that the purpose of a model? I quickly did a search and found this definition: “In science, a model is a representation of an idea, an object or even a process or a system that is used to describe and explain phenomena that cannot be experienced directly. Models are central to what scientists do, both in their research as well as when communicating their explanations… Models are a mentally visual way of linking theory with experiment, and they guide research by being simplified representations of an imagined reality that enable predictions to be developed and tested by experiment.” It’s from here.

OK, so in clinical reasoning what utility does a model need? I think a model needs to generate hypotheses that explain the unique presentation of this person, their problems, at this time. A nomothetic representation of what might be going on for this unique person.

Occupational therapists and physiotherapists, and probably psychologists, are all concerned less about impairment (that’s damage or dysfunction at the body structure level) than we are about the impact this has on functional limitations and on participation. This doesn’t mean we’re not interested in impairment, but our focus is much more likely to be on “and what impact does that have on what you need and want to do”. Occupational therapists, in particular, are concerned about “and how does this affect the way you participate in our world”.

But if we look at clinical reasoning models in our various professions I think there are some gaps. I don’t think our models invite us to generate hypotheses because the various clusters of information don’t seem to link together in a terribly coherent way. Yet – with all the information around us, there are some causal (or bidirectional) relationships we can consider.

For example, we know that if someone is very fearful of their pain, they’re likely to describe elevated physiological arousal, and they’re not as inclined to engage in movements they believe will exacerbate their pain.

A line of reasoning goes from Fear -> Physiological arousal and Fear -> Avoidance.

This simple set of hypotheses generates some ideas about what might help. Firstly we’d test the presence of fear – is it just happening in this moment, or is it something that’s been present consistently? Mostly we ask the person, but we could use a questionnaire measure of fear of pain. We could also test for physiological arousal – is this present? How do we know? We could use various biofeedback devices, or we could simply ask (or use a questionnaire). And of course we can test for fear-avoidance as a combined construct via questionnaire and/or behavioural testing.

This set of steps really just determines whether our hypotheses are present, so now we need to generate some treatments. In this case, we also draw on research and think about providing information – this, we hypothesise, should reduce reported fear. So we embark on some explanations about what’s going on – and we should see a reduction of fear on a measure of pain-related fear. But perhaps not on avoidance because we know that behaviour change requires more than simply information. We might also help the person down-regulate their excitable nervous system, reducing that “fear -> arousal” relationship. And finally we might begin doing some exposure work which acts on reducing fear in the presence of doing something scary (movements) and so reduce the relationship between fear -> avoidance.

What the example above shows us is what might happen once we’ve identified some potential phenomena that may be present. What it doesn’t show, and something I struggle to find in many clinical reasoning models, is how clinicians identify those phenomena. Why would someone think to ask about fear of pain? Especially if we believe that our job is to help reduce pain and pain’s the only reason the person isn’t doing things. And even more – if we think our job is to deal with “physical” and fail to recognise the relationship between “physical” and “feelings, beliefs”.

You see, I think broad “groups of factors to consider” belongs in the assessment, but we need something more tangible when formulating an individualised explanation. We need to be generating hypotheses about how these various factors interact and lead to a presentation – and while much of this will be conjecture initially, by generating various hypotheses we can then go on to test them – and ultimately establish the priorities for treatment in collaboration with the person. That’s much easier to do when we’ve fleshed out why the person isn’t able to do what’s important to them, and we’ve synthesised all the known factors in some explanatory model.

Is this complex? Yes – but who said it had to be easy? This is why we do the work we do, because it’s complex and “common sense” doesn’t cut it. And if our various professions really want to adopt a sociopsychobiological framework for pain, maybe our clinical reasoning models need to synthesise all these factors in some coherent way rather than simply plonking the groups of factors down without integrating what’s known about the relationships between variables from different domains.

Wacker, J. G. (1998). A definition of theory: research guidelines for different theory-building research methods in operations management. Journal of Operations Management, 16(4), 361-385.

Yazdani, S., Hosseinzadeh, M., & Hosseini, F. (2017). Models of clinical reasoning with a focus on general practice: A critical review. Journal of advances in medical education & professionalism, 5(4), 177-184.

2 comments

  1. Bronnie, thanks for yet another thought-provoking article.

    Do you see a distinction between a framework for clinical reasoning and a framework for negotiation?

    As you would know, in the context of pain medicine I have always regarded “biopsychosocial” and “sociopsychobiological” as frameworks for negotiation rather than tools to be used for the purpose of clinical reasoning.

    As you correctly point out, “I don’t think our models invite us to generate hypotheses because the various clusters of information don’t seem to link together in a terribly coherent way.”

    1. In some ways yes, in other ways no. The process of formulating is always collaborative, but some of the mechanisms involved may or may not be important to the person in pain. Does the person really care that the reason they’re not doing something is partly because of their partner reinforcing avoidance? and that they’re thinking the worst? Does the person really want to know about the neurobiology? Some people might, others might not. What matters is that a collaborative endeavour is undertaken, and that some hard thinking by the clinician goes on to tease apart the various factors. Sometimes people are completely unaware of the reasons they do something (this happens with classical, operant conditioning and social modeling) and may not know to describe it – it’s the clinician’s job to establish whether this is the case, then generate experiments to test the hypotheses. It’s at the point of “testing” that conversations about why they’re being explored can happen.
      I would expect that in medicine, where the focus is far more on impairment at the tissue/systems level, would not be as inclined to voice clinical reasoning, but where disability and participation are concerned, I think clinical reasoning must incorporate sociopsychobiological factors in a coherent set of hypotheses – otherwise we are still waiting for a formula or algorithm to do the work for us. Given that so many of the factors known to be associated with disability and participation are behavioural, social, psychological – there is much we DO know about causal mechanisms and associations over time, we should use this knowledge to enhance our clinical reasoning.

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