Medical Student Guide For Critical Thinking

Medistudents team
August 18, 2021

Critical thinking is an essential cognitive skill for every individual but is a crucial component for healthcare professionals such as doctors, nurses and dentists. It is a skill that should be developed and trained, not just during your career as a doctor, but before that when you are still a medical student.

To be more effective in their studies, students must think their way through abstract problems, work in teams and separate high quality from low quality information. These are the same qualities that today's medical students are supposed to possess regardless of whether they graduate in the UK or study medicine in Europe.

In both well-defined and ill-defined medical emergencies, doctors are expected to make competent decisions. Critical thinking can help medical students and doctors achieve improved productivity, better clinical decision making, higher grades and much more.

This article will explain why critical thinking is a must for people in the medical field.

Definition of Critical Thinking

You can find a variety of definitions of Critical Thinking (CT). It is a term that goes back to the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and his teaching practice and vision. Critical thinking and its meaning have changed over the years, but at its core always will be the pursuit of proper judgment.

We can agree on one thing. Critical thinkers question every idea, assumption, and possibility rather than accepting them at once.

The most basic definition of CT is provided by Beyer (1995):

"Critical thinking means making reasoned judgements."

In other words, it is the ability to think logically about what to do and/or believe. It also includes the ability to think critically and independently. CT is the process of identifying, analysing, and then making decisions about a particular topic, advice, opinion or challenge that we are facing.

Steps to critical thinking

There is no universal standard for becoming a critical thinker. It is more like a unique journey for each individual. But as a medical student, you have already so much going on in your academic and personal life. This is why we created a list with 6 steps that will help you develop the necessary skills for critical thinking.

1. Determine the issue or question

The first step is to answer the following questions:

  • What is the problem?
  • Why is it important?
  • Why do we need to find a solution?
  • Who is involved?

By answering them, you will define the situation and acquire a deeper understanding of the problem and of any factors that may impact it.

Only after you have a clear picture of the issue and people involved can you start to dive deeper into the problem and search for a solution.

2. Research

Nowadays, we are flooded with information. We have an unlimited source of knowledge – the Internet.

Before choosing which medical schools to apply to, most applicants researched their desired schools online. Some of the areas you might have researched include:

  • If the degree is recognised worldwide
  • Tuition fees
  • Living costs
  • Entry requirements
  • Competition for entry
  • Number of exams
  • Programme style

Having done the research, you were able to make an informed decision about your medical future based on the gathered information. Our list may be a little different to yours but that's okay. You know what factors are most important and relevant to you as a person.

The process you followed when choosing which medical school to apply to also applies to step 2 of critical thinking. As a medical student and doctor, you will face situations when you have to compare different arguments and opinions about an issue. Independent research is the key to the right clinical decisions. Medical and dentistry students have to be especially careful when learning from online sources. You shouldn't believe everything you read and take it as the absolute truth. So, here is what you need to do when facing a medical/study argument:

  • Gather relevant information from all available reputable sources
  • Pay attention to the salient points
  • Evaluate the quality of the information and the level of evidence (is it just an opinion, or is it based upon a clinical trial?)

3. Analyse

Once you have all the information needed, you can start the process of analysing it. It’s helpful to write down the strong and weak points of the various recommendations  and identify the most evidence-based approach.

Here is an example of a comparison between two online course platforms, which shows their respective strengths and weaknesses.

When recommendations or conclusions are contradictory, you will need to make a judgement call on which point of view has the strongest level of evidence to back it up. You should leave aside your feelings and analyse the problem from every angle possible. In the end, you should aim to make your decision based on the available evidence, not assumptions or bias.

4. Be careful about confirmation bias

It is in our nature to want to confirm our existing ideas rather than challenge them. You should try your best to strive for objectivity while evaluating information.

Often, you may find yourself reading articles that support your ideas, but why not broaden your horizons by learning about the other viewpoint?

By doing so, you will have the opportunity to get closer to the truth and may even find unexpected support and evidence for your conclusion.

Curiosity will keep you on the right path. However, if you find yourself searching for information or confirmation that aligns only with your opinion, then it’s important to take a step back. Take a short break, acknowledge your bias, clear your mind and start researching all over.

5. Synthesis

As we have already mentioned a couple of times, medical students are preoccupied with their studies. Therefore, you have to learn how to synthesise information. This is where you take information from multiple sources and bring the information together. Learning how to do this effectively will save you time and help you make better decisions faster.

You will have already located and evaluated your sources in the previous steps. You now have to organise the data into a logical argument that backs up your position on the problem under consideration.

6. Make a decision

Once you have gathered and evaluated all the available evidence, your last step  is to make a logical and well-reasoned conclusion.

By following this process you will ensure that whatever decision you make can be backed up if challenged

Why is critical thinking so important for medical students?

The first and most important reason for mastering critical thinking is that it will help you to avoid medical and clinical errors during your studies and future medical career.

Another good reason is that you will be able to identify better alternative options for diagnoses and treatments. You will be able to find the best solution for the patient as a whole which may be different to generic advice specific to the disease.

Furthermore, thinking critically as a medical student will boost your confidence and improve your knowledge and understanding of subjects.

In conclusion, critical thinking is a skill that can be learned and improved.  It will encourage you to be the best version of yourself and teach you to take responsibility for your actions.

Critical thinking has become an essential for future health care professionals and you will find it an invaluable skill throughout your career.