Understanding context specificity: The effect of contextual factors on clinical reasoning

Abigail Konopasky*, Anthony R. Artino, Alexis Battista, Megan Ohmer, Paul A. Hemmer, Dario Torre, Divya Ramani, Jeroen Van Merrienboer, Pim W. Teunissen, Elexis McBee, Temple Ratcliffe, Steven J. Durning

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Situated cognition theory argues that thinking is inextricably situated in a context. In clinical reasoning, this can lead to context specificity: A physician arriving at two different diagnoses for two patients with the same symptoms, findings, and diagnosis but different contextual factors (something beyond case content potentially influencing reasoning). This paper experimentally investigates the presence of and mechanisms behind context specificity by measuring differences in clinical reasoning performance in cases with and without contextual factors. An experimental study was conducted in 2018-2019 with 39 resident and attending physicians in internal medicine. Participants viewed two outpatient clinic video cases (unstable angina and diabetes mellitus), one with distracting contextual factors and one without. After viewing each case, participants responded to six open-ended diagnostic items (e.g. problem list, leading diagnosis) and rated their cognitive load. Multivariate analysis of covariance (MANCOVA) results revealed significant differences in angina case performance with and without contextual factors [Pillai's trace = 0.72, F = 12.4, df =(6, 29), p < 0.001, η p 2 = 0.72 $\eta_{\rm p}^2 = 0.72$[, with follow-up univariate analyses indicating that participants performed statistically significantly worse in cases with contextual factors on five of six items. There were no significant differences in diabetes cases between conditions. There was no statistically significant difference in cognitive load between conditions. Using typical presentations of common diagnoses, and contextual factors typical for clinical practice, we provide ecologically valid evidence for the theoretically predicted negative effects of context specificity (i.e. for the angina case), with large effect sizes, offering insight into the persistence of diagnostic error.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)257-264
Number of pages8
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • clinical reasoning
  • cognitive load
  • context
  • situated cognition


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