Harnessing Intuition in Medicine

Harnessing Intuition (C)

“I believe in intuitions and inspirations…I sometimes FEEL that I am right. I do not KNOW that I am.” ~ Albert Einstein

Listen to today’s post on the go or continue reading below …


The topic of intuition is exciting to me because I think it can be an invaluable tool in leading your life with heart, soul and wisdom. It certainly isn’t a new concept in either psychology or medicine. If fact, according to the article “Clinical intuition in family medicine: more than first impressions”, it has been the subject of robust scientific inquiry in psychology for about 40 years.

Intuition – “a phenomenon of the mind, describes the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason.” For most of us, it is that ‘gut feeling’ or voice in our head. Often, it can be used retrospectively as in “I knew I shouldn’t have done that” or “something was telling me this wouldn’t end well”. In fact, our intuition can be very beneficial when logic or evidence doesn’t take into account the whole picture.

Intuition is very evident in medicine. Evidence-based medicine is of course the gold standard in patient care. This information guides how clinical medicine should be approached. However, in my experience, evidence lacks some very crucial aspects of patient encounters – namely the humanistic, artistic side of medicine. For instance, people have a context and a story that often is a significant part of their care.

With family medicine’s patient-centered approach, it isn’t enough just to know the facts as to why a patient presents themselves, we must uncover the true why. For example, a young woman presents with breast pain for the past few weeks. We all know why she presented, but the true why is that her mother’s friend was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and she now fears the same for herself.

Experience enhances intuition

Dr. Trisha Greenhalgh wrote an interesting article on this topic, Intuition and evidence – uneasy bedfellows?, which looks at the intersection between intuition and evidence-based medicine. One of the key concepts that she discusses is the role experience plays in clinical decision-making. In fact, “the more experienced a clinician gets, the less logical their decision-making processes are shown to be”. At some point, the “scientific imagination meets the personal narrative”. In essence, ideally we have experience, context and familiarity in patient encounters that enhance clinical decision-making in the best interest of the patients.

Greenhalgh also highlights the benefits of reflecting retrospectively on the process of clinical intuition as an educational tool. This shines a light on how the roles of emotions and perceptual awareness contributes to complex decision-making and encourages an overall holistic approach. Although medical trainees may not have a wealth of experience, any experience where hunches or gut feelings play a role, may provide an opportunity for reflective learning.

Does everyone have intuitive ability?

Everyone has some degree of intuition – but it is often turned off by reason, doubt and busyness. Some people even say they don’t want to be with their thoughts during difficult times in their life because this inner wisdom is trying to be heard and can be painful. In medicine, harnessing intuition can also help us have empathy for others.

In the article What is Clinical empathy?, Dr. Jodi Halpern quotes a leading group from the Society for General Internal Medicine that defines empathy as “the act of correctly acknowledging the emotional state of another without experiencing that state oneself.” My intuition has served me well many times in various clinical encounters where I end up having a deeper sense of a patient’s story than what is just apparent on the surface. This is at the heart of empathy – an essential foundation of clinical medicine.

How can we develop our intuition?

Marie Forleo offers 4 ways to develop intuition in her video 4 Ways to sharpen your intuition – even if you think you don’t have it, but I believe that following 2 of are the most important.

1) Meditate: Just as we discussed above that busyness can suppress our intuition, meditating regularly can foster self-awareness and enlightenment of our inner wisdom. Meditation offers most of us clarity that cannot be found in our external world. When we come to know your inner world more fully, we become more intuitive.

2) Awareness of visceral reactions: We have all had those moments of either a sense of impending doom or a sense of utter relief. By becoming more aware of those internal reactions, we can learn to harness them in a beneficial way.

I truly love this topic and believe that we have so much more to uncover regarding the role of intuition in both medicine and in life. How does intuition play a role in your life?


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