The problem representation is a one-sentence summary that highlights the defining features of a case. It helps clinicians summarize their thoughts and then generate a differential diagnosis. The “one-liner” statements used to summarize patient cases on rounds, in notes, or when calling consults are all versions of the problem representation. A problem representation should be updated iteratively as the clinician gathers data throughout a patient encounter. A well-formed problem representation facilitates clinical reasoning and serves as the backbone for how clinicians communicate with one another.
The problem representation activates illness scripts, mental representations of potential diagnoses, within the clinician’s memory. Through a comparison process, the clinician develops a prioritized differential diagnosis based on the degree of match between the patient’s problem representation and previous illness scripts (or disease prototypes).
To illustrate the properties of effective problem representations, consider the following case:
A 60-year-old woman with rheumatoid arthritis presents with one day of left ankle pain and swelling as well one week of malaise. She has been on prednisone 20mg daily for the past 6 months. On exam, she is febrile and tachycardic, with left ankle edema, erythema, and tenderness with active and passive range of motion. Blood work is significant for a WBC of 15.
An effective problem representation succinctly answers the three key questions listed above: Who is the patient? What is the time course? What is the clinical syndrome?
An effective problem representation includes discriminating features (1), and excludes nonspecific ones (e.g. malaise). It also translates the patient’s data into medical terms. For example, one day becomes acute; chronic daily use of 20mg of prednisone becomes immunocompromised; left ankle pain and swelling become monoarticular arthritis; and fever, tachycardia, and leukocytosis become SIRS. By comparing and contrasting opposing diagnostic features, these abstract semantic qualifiers (e.g. acute vs. chronic, dull vs. sharp, distal vs. proximal) add differentiating power to a problem representation (2-4).
- Bowen JL. Educational Strategies to Promote Clinical Diagnostic Reasoning. N Engl J Med. 2006;355(21):2217-25.
- Nendaz MR, Bordage G. Promoting diagnostic problem representation. Med Educ. 2002;36(8):760-6.
- Chang RW, Bordage G, Connell KJ. The importance of early problem representation during case presentations. Acad Med. 1998;73(10):S109-11.
- Bordage G. Prototypes and semantic qualifiers: From past to present. Med Educ. 2007;41(12):1117-21.