The physician's experience of changing clinical practice: A struggle to unlearn

Divya M. Gupta, Richard J. Boland, David C. Aron*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

152 Scopus citations


Background: Changing clinical practice is a difficult process, best illustrated by the time lag between evidence and use in practice and the extensive use of low-value care. Existing models mostly focus on the barriers to learning and implementing new knowledge. Changing clinical practice, however, includes not only the learning of new practices but also unlearning old and outmoded knowledge. There exists sparse literature regarding the unlearning that takes place at a physician level. Our research objective was to elucidate the experience of trying to abandon an outmoded clinical practice and its relation to learning a new one. Methods: We used a grounded theory-based qualitative approach to conduct our study. We conducted 30-min in-person interviews with 15 primary care physicians at the Cleveland VA Medical Center and its clinics. We used a semi-structured interview guide to standardize the interviews. Results: Our two findings include (1) practice change disturbs the status quo equilibrium. Establishing a new equilibrium that incorporates the change may be a struggle; and (2) part of the struggle to establish a new equilibrium incorporating a practice change involves both the "evidence" itself and tensions between evidence and context. Conclusions: Our findings provide evidence-based support for many of the empirical unlearning models that have been adapted to healthcare. Our findings differ from these empirical models in that they refute the static and unidirectional nature of change that previous models imply. Rather, our findings suggest that clinical practice is in a constant flux of change; each instance of unlearning and learning is merely a punctuation mark in this spectrum of change. We suggest that physician unlearning models be modified to reflect the constantly changing nature of clinical practice and demonstrate that change is a multi-directional process.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number28
JournalImplementation Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 28 2017


  • Grounded theory
  • Practice change
  • Qualitative methods
  • Unlearning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health Policy
  • Health Informatics


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