Polanyi's tacit knowing and the relevance of epistemology to clinical medicine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Most clinicians take for granted a simple, reductionist understanding of medical knowledge that is at odds with how they actually practice medicine; routine medical decisions incorporate more complicated kinds of information than most standard accounts of medical reasoning suggest. A better understanding of the structure and function of knowledge in medicine can lead to practical improvements in clinical medicine. This understanding requires some familiarity with epistemology, the study of knowledge and its structure, in medicine. Michael Polanyis theory of tacit knowing is advanced as the basis for developing a more accurate understanding of medical knowledge. Tacit knowing, which explores the taken-for-granted background knowledge that underlies all human knowing, is explained in detail with a focus on its relevance for clinical medicine. The implications of recognizing tacit knowing in medicine and medical decisions are discussed. These include the ability to explain the importance of the clinical encounter in medical practice, mechanisms for analysing patient and doctor as persons, and the need for humility given the uncertainty that the tacit dimension injects into all medical decisions. This more robust medical epistemology allows clinicians to better articulate the nature and importance of patient-centred care, to avoid pitfalls inherent in reductionist approaches to medical knowledge, and to think more clearly about the relationships between medicine and health care at the individual and population levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)292-297
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Clinical judgment
  • Epistemology
  • Medical knowledge
  • Michael Polanyi
  • Philosophy of medicine
  • Tacit knowing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health Policy


Dive into the research topics of 'Polanyi's tacit knowing and the relevance of epistemology to clinical medicine'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this