Using the Scientific Method to Become a Better Practitioner

by Kevin Haussler, DVM, DC, PhD

The scientific method is an invaluable tool that was developed to help solve problems and generate new knowledge. We all use components of the scientific method in our daily lives. We make observations and then form conclusions based on what we see, feel, smell, taste or hear. Many of our daily decisions are based on prior experiences or what we might have learned from others.

Sometimes, we are presented with a unique circumstance or face a challenging problem for which we do not have an immediate answer. We might search online, ask friends or colleagues, or need to explore possible explanations on our own. The scientific method provides a framework to objectively assess different scenarios or possible solutions to the problem at hand.

The 7-step process

The scientific method begins with observation, followed by the formulation of a hypothesis, then experimentation, data collection, analysis, and finally, the drawing of conclusions. At each stage of this process, objectivity and accuracy are paramount.

the scientific method

What has this to do with our clinical practice?

Every patient we see requires us to make observations, collect data, make an assessment, apply a treatment, and then make new observations to see if we were effective or not in our management.

1. Observation
 

Everyday Life

A keen sense of observation is critical for making well thought-out decisions. Any inaccuracies or bias can lead us to make a wrong conclusion. The adage “garbage in, garbage out” is applicable here.

Clinical Practice

All of us have a filter through which we see our patients. Surgeons see patients one way and dermatologists see patients a different way. The key to making accurate observations is to view each patient as an individual with a unique set of clinical signs. We often make mistakes by looking for preconceived patterns developed from our own personal bias – we make the patient fit our expectations.

2. Question or Problem
 

Everyday Life

As we observe the world around us, we often have questions or are faced with problems that need to be solved. The more specific we can be with our questions, the more likely we will be able to find trustworthy answers.

Clinical Practice

If we do not take the time to observe the specific attributes of each individual patient, then we often clump patients into categories – a back pain patient, a lameness case, a bad behaving horse. Not all back pain patients have the same or identical clinical complaints, functional deficits, or underlying pathology.

3. Seek Answers
 

Everyday Life

Our ability to answer questions is often based on our current access to knowledge. Formal education and life experiences provide insights into how to find answers or provide access to the existing knowledge base (e.g., scientific literature).

Clinical Practice

If we have a standard or fixed approach for addressing specific types of patients, then there is no need for us to question our treatment or look for other clinical signs that might be unique to that individual patient. Approaching each patient with a blank slate offers the best opportunity for us to collect as much useful clinical information as possible.

4. Hypothesis
 

Everyday Life

If an answer is not readily available, then we may explore different options or conduct a therapeutic trial to see if we can test and find a viable solution to our problem. Hypothesis development requires an open and inquisitive mind, where many different possible options need to be considered.

Clinical Practice

Our observations provide the opportunity for us to reflect on a wide variety of diagnostic and treatment options. Creating different scenarios challenges us to explore choices outside of our routine decision making or comfort zones.

5. Experimentation
 

Everyday Life

Testing different ideas does not always require an elaborate research setting. However, a rigorous approach is needed to eliminate potential sources of bias or error. Accurate measurements and controls are essential for obtaining reliable results.

Clinical Practice

Our clinical assessments need to be standardized and as thorough as possible to provide accurate data. Similarly, treatment plans need to be detailed and specific for the individual patient.

6. Data Analysis
 

Everyday Life

The results of our data collection must be interpreted critically to ensure that our findings are both accurate and meaningful.

Clinical Practice

Critical thinking is an important, but likely underutilized skill. It encourages us to explore different perspectives and approaches to problems.
A common clinical bias is to assume that our diagnosis was accurate and our treatment highly effective. We need to carefully evaluate the evidence to see what other diagnoses might also need to be considered and to seek confirmation that our applied treatment was better than no treatment at all.

7. Conclusions
 

Everyday Life

The conclusions must be based on the data collected and should not extrapolate beyond what the evidence supports. Inaccurate or exaggerated conclusions can lead to misinformation and biased recommendations.

Clinical Practice

Constant reflection and self-doubt are useful skills to help us to be better observers, to ask more pertinent questions, to seek more diverse diagnostic and treatment options, and to be confident that we were able to provide the best possible care for each of our individual patients.

In summary, the scientific method and critical thinking are fundamental skills that empower practitioners to make better decisions, solve problems more effectively, and adapt to an ever-changing world. These tools are not only valuable in academic and professional settings but also in everyday life for making informed and rational choices. The scientific method helps us to become better practitioners.

To what extent do you currently use the scientific method in your clinical practice or, if you’re an owner, in the decisions you make for your horse?

Stay tuned for our fourth and last blog post in this scientific accuracy series: Clinicians versus Researchers: Who Should You Believe? Then join us on October 26th for a free zoom to share your thoughts about scientific accuracy on social media and in your clinical practice. Registration at vetspine.org/webinars/

Want to learn more?

Browse our RACE-approved catalog of online learning modules.

Resources

Want to learn more?

Browse our RACE-approved catalog of online learning modules.