Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The diagnostic role of gut feelings in general practice A focus group study of the concept and its determinants

Erik Stolper1*, Marloes van Bokhoven1, Paul Houben1, Paul Van Royen2, Margje van de Wiel3, Trudy van der Weijden1 and Geert Jan Dinant1

Author Affiliations

1 School for Public Health and Primary Care (CAPHRI), Department of General Practice, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

2 Department of General Practice, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium

3 Department of Work and Social Psychology, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

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BMC Family Practice 2009, 10:17  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-10-17

Published: 18 February 2009



General practitioners sometimes base clinical decisions on gut feelings alone, even though there is little evidence of their diagnostic and prognostic value in daily practice. Research into these aspects and the use of the concept in medical education require a practical and valid description of gut feelings. The goal of our study was therefore to describe the concept of gut feelings in general practice and to identify their main determinants


Qualitative research including 4 focus group discussions. A heterogeneous sample of 28 GPs. Text analysis of the focus group discussions, using a grounded theory approach.


Gut feelings are familiar to most GPs in the Netherlands and play a substantial role in their everyday routine. The participants distinguished two types of gut feelings, a sense of reassurance and a sense of alarm. In the former case, a GP is sure about prognosis and therapy, although they may not always have a clear diagnosis in mind. A sense of alarm means that a GP has the feeling that something is wrong even though objective arguments are lacking. GPs in the focus groups experienced gut feelings as a compass in situations of uncertainty and the majority of GPs trusted this guide. We identified the main determinants of gut feelings: fitting, alerting and interfering factors, sensation, contextual knowledge, medical education, experience and personality.


The role of gut feelings in general practice has become much clearer, but we need more research into the contributions of individual determinants and into the test properties of gut feelings to make the concept suitable for medical education.