Clinical reasoning and hypothesis generation in expert clinical swallowing examinations

Sue McAllister, Helen Tedesco, Samantha Kruger, Elizabeth C. Ward, Claire Marsh, Sebastian H. Doeltgen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Background: A clinical swallow examination (CSE) provides integral information that informs the diagnostic decision-making process within dysphagia management. However, multiple studies have highlighted a high degree of reported variability within the CSE process. It has been hypothesized that such variability may be the result of the clinical reasoning process rather than poor practices. Aims: To elucidate the nature of expert, speech–language therapists’ (SLTs) clinical reasoning during an initial bedside assessment of patients referred for suspected dysphagia in the acute care environment. Methods & Procedures: An exploratory ‘observation of practice’ qualitative methodology was used to achieve the aim. Four expert SLTs, from two clinical services, completed CSEs with 10 new referrals for suspected dysphagia. All assessments were video-recorded, and within 30 min of completing the CSE, a video-stimulated ‘think aloud’ semi-structured interview was conducted in which the SLT was prompted to articulate their clinical reasoning at each stage of the CSE. Three types of concept maps were generated based on this video and interview content: a descriptive concept map, a reasoning map and a hypothesis map. Patterns that consistently characterized the assessment process were identified, including the overall structure; types of reasoning (inductive versus deductive), facts (i.e., clinical information) drawn upon; and outcomes of the process (diagnosis and recommendations). Interview content was examined to identify types of expert reasoning strategies using during the CSE. Outcomes & Results: SLTs’ approach to clinical assessment followed a consistent structure, with data gathered pre-bedside, during the patient interview and direct assessment before a management recommendation was made. Within this structure, SLTs engaged in an iterative approach with inductive hypothesis-generating and deductive hypothesis-testing, with each decision-making pathway individually tailored and informed by patient-specific facts collected during the assessment. Clinical assessment was primarily geared towards management of an initial acute presentation with less focus on formulating a diagnostic statement. Conclusions & Implications: Variability in reported dysphagia practice is likely the result of a patient-centred assessment process characterized by iterative cycles of fact-gathering in order to generate and test clinical hypotheses. This has implications for the development of novel assessment tools, as well as professional development and education of novice SLTs. What this paper adds What is already known on the subject CSE practices are reportedly variable, which has led to calls for more stringent, standardized assessment tools. Emerging evidence suggests that this variation is non-random, but may arise from clinical reasoning processes. What this paper adds to existing knowledge We directly observed expert SLTs conducting CSEs and identified patterns in practice that were consistent across all CSEs evaluated. These patterns were consistent in structure, whereas the content of the assessment items varied and was tailored to individual patient presentation. Overall, expert SLTs engaged in balanced cycles of inductive hypothesis generation and deductive hypothesis-testing, a hallmark of good clinical assessment and practice. What are the potential or actual clinical implications of this work? Ensuring quality CSE requires a more nuanced approach that considers the role of clinical reasoning in SLTs’ decision-making and the potential unintended negative consequences of standardized assessment tools.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)480-492
Number of pages13
JournalInternational Journal of Language and Communication Disorders
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2020


  • acute
  • clinical reasoning
  • deductive
  • dysphagia
  • hypothesis
  • inductive


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