A diagnostic schema is an organised cognitive map that provides a structured approach or organising scaffold to a clinical problem. Schemas convert lists (e.g. specific diagnoses) into mental flow charts that are organised by clinically meaningful variables or classes of causes. This allows for better problem solving, learning, and retention. Schemas are thought to improve knowledge organisation, and can be helpful in cases where there are multiple factors for consideration.
Because they can be retrieved and manipulated as a single item within the working memory, schemas also allow clinicians to manage their cognitive load and maintain the bandwidth for effective problem-solving. Clinicians can systematically access and explore individual illness scripts as potential diagnoses.
Examples of basic diagnostic schema include:
|Clinical Problem/Syndrome||Basic Diagnostic Schema|
|Chronic low back pain||Mechanical, non-mechanical, visceral disease|
|Chronic distal posterior thigh pain||Vascular, soft tissue, joint causes|
|Paediatric groin pain||Infectious, inflammatory, mechanical, neoplastic|
|Bone lesions||Benign, malignant, infectious, inflammatory, other|
Sound diagnostic schemas help clinicians:
- Tether diagnostic thinking to a logical framework (i.e., structural/anatomic, physiologic, etc.) that can be more easily remembered
- Avoid missing categories of illness, or anchoring on the most familiar diagnoses
- Expand their differential diagnosis for a complex problem
- Trigger differentiating historical or physical exam manoeuvres to refine the differential diagnosis (i.e., when activated during a clinical encounter, the schema for chronic low back pain may prompt the clinician to examine the abdomen as that will help to differentiate among the potential diagnostic categories for this problem)
- Teach others how to approach a given clinical problem (‘think aloud’)
Through deliberate practice, learners adapt and individualize their schema—tying these frameworks to prior clinical knowledge and experience, which keeps them robust and accessible. Over time individuals may find that collapsing certain categories, or creating new ones, allows a schema to ‘work’ best for them.