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Clinical Judgement— Evidence in Practice
  1. Peter Toon
  1. General practitioner, London, UK

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    R S Downie, Jane Macnaughton, Oxford, OUP, 2000, 212 pages, £19.95.

    The authors define the aims of this book as being: (1) to make a case for the centrality and irreplaceability of clinical judgment; (2) to identify the elements of good clinical judgment, and (3) to suggest how these might be developed by using the humanities in medical education.

    The book's message could be summarised as “evidence based practice is not enough”. The case is made by looking at four elements of judgment. Science is not merely a question of facts but also of their interpretation and the construction of theories, matters of judgment. Clinical judgment is needed to apply the general principles of scientific medicine to the individual, who is never identical with the average patient. The two chapters which discuss these topics, although worthy, are in the traditional rather ponderous style of British philosophy, and might have least appeal for those who most need to read them.

    The chapter on humane judgment is easier reading and more interesting, exploring the relationship between autonomy, consumerism and professional judgment. A brief chapter on judgment in public health is followed by perhaps the best chapter, a clear account of both the facts and values of rationing. This would be an excellent text to give on an introductory course on this important issue, and I have little doubt that I shall use it as such. The final chapter rehearses the arguments in favour of the medical humanities, which are likely to be well known to readers of this journal.

    Paradoxically, perhaps because of my background in experimental psychology, I couldn't help feeling that many of the chapters could themselves have benefited from a bit more evidence—particularly those on clinical judgment and the benefits of teaching the humanities, where empirical research has as much to teach us as philosophy.

    The book certainly makes the case for clinical judgment, although not always in a very accessible way. Whilst it includes some interesting insights into the nature of clinical judgment, and into the place of medical humanities in its development, I did not feel that the authors really achieved their second and third aims. As a whole I found it hard to see for whom the book was written. Those committed to the view that medicine is both a humanity and an art will find little new here, whilst those still locked in a positivist time-warp (and sadly there are still many such souls in purgatory) might find the style too discursive and philosophical to stick with it.