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Mnemonic Techniques to Improve Your Differential Diagnosis

You can memorize the differential diagnosis as a medical student, nursing student, or PA student. Or you can use these differential diagnosis mnemonics and study smarter.

Updated: February 6, 2023
By Jordan P. Roberts, PA-C
Mnemonics for Differential Diagnosis How to Make DDx

How to Formulate a Good Differential Diagnosis

Creating a plausible and worthwhile differential diagnosis is a challenge for students and new clinicians alike. Even experienced healthcare professionals can get complacent.

We all can benefit from reviewing how we formulate our best differentials in challenging cases.

These differential diagnosis mnemonics are low-tech and can help you think through even the most challenging cases. These mnemonics won't tell you which conditions to consider, however.

And if that's not enough, you can always use the awesome artificial intelligence based app VisualDx to help you out. That will run you about $500 per year, but is oh so worth it.

Medical mnemonics can help you save time and remember important information quickly. Thus, medical students, PA students, and NP students can study smarter by using tried and true methods to formulate comprehensive differential diagnoses that get results.

Not only that, but along with a good board prep question bank, these techniques can help you ace the boards, land your dream job, and become a better clinician.

If you struggle to quickly articulate a differential diagnosis making rounds…

If you've ever been stumped in clinic by a patient presentation (though, who hasn't?)…

And if you've tried memorizing everything without making yourself insane…

Then this article is for you. We'll present three easy-to-remember medical mnemonics that can help you formulate a good differential diagnosis for any condition.

If you want even more, check out this book with hundreds of the most popular mnemonics for the differential diagnosis.

If all this thinking seems like too much braining for you (or even if it doesn't), you could probably use a point-of-care clinical decision support tool.

We suggest subscribing to VisualDx to augment your differential and clinical reasoning with this powerful artificial intelligence clinical decision support tool.

Did I mention you'll earn CME just for using it?

Formulate a Differential Diagnosis with Mnemonics

We decided to create this differential diagnosis tool (larger version below) after a conversation with one of our colleagues, who is kind of a big deal in the med-mal world. He is also the author of Surgery for the Physician Assistant.

Robert Blumm, PA and I discussed the importance of the differential diagnosis from a patient care and medicolegal perspective, which really got me thinking.

VINDICATE Differential Diagnosis Mnemonic
Universal Differential Diagnosis Formulator VITAMIN CDE
3 Best Mnemonics to Effortlessly Nail Any Differential Diagnosis: VINDICATE, VITAMINS, VITAMINS CDE, VITAMINS ABCDEK
Tap to enlarge

Why Generating a Good Differential Diagnosis is so Important

It’s almost hard to blame students for a lackluster differential because of the way medical education programs teach their curriculum.

First, we learn how to identify patterns in seemingly random clusters of signs and symptoms.

Next, we must come up with THE single best answer so that we can pass the boards.

Finally, society expects clinicians to flawlessly apply this new knowledge to patients who forgot to read the textbook before their unscheduled medical emergency.

Unfortunately, we can't help you convince patients to read the textbook, but we can offer you better-than-textbook-level knowledge without the textbook-related narcolepsy.

At times, we can also reduce some of the financial toxicity associated with textbooks. If you are still struggling to retain information, remember the foundation of education is learning how to learn.

With that said, we've put together three of the best differential diagnosis mnemonics around so you can create the best differential diagnosis possible no matter the patient's presentation.

You can also get all three mnemonics sent to you in a single downloadable PDF. Click here to join us and get your study aid.

1. VINDICATE Mnemonic

This mnemonic gives you nine potential etiologies from which to choose to create a comprehensive differential. They include vascular, infectious, neoplastic, degenerative, iatrogenic, intoxication, congenital, autoimmune, traumatic, endocrine, and metabolic.

You can find one of the first instances of (if not the original) VINDICATE mnemonic here. It's a classic medical education strategy book by R Douglas Collins. It is also recommended by experienced clinicians (i.e., those who are likely to pimp you) around the world.

2. VITAMIN CDE Mnemonic

Taking it to the next level, this mnemonic helps you easily remember a ten-point differential diagnosis generator. In addition to the systems mentioned above, we also have inflammatory, toxic, and idiopathic.


If you thought VITAMIN CDE took it up a notch, this one goes to 11. Well, technically, fourteen. And the best part about it is the breadth and memorability. It’s just all the vitamins! The bonus categories are allergy, mechanical, social, alcohol, behavioral, drug, and karyotype.

Which Mnemonic is Best for Creating a Good Differential Diagnosis?

Ultimately, that's up to you and whichever one you remember best. If memorization is a challenge for you or if you are struggling to keep up in your medical education program, then learn to study smarter.

Be sure to improve your clinical thinking with our differential diagnosis tool. Below, you can view the infographic with all three techniques together along with some helpful bonus tips.

That was just part of my medicolegal conversation with PA Blumm. You can also learn his insightful take on the medico-legal importance of a good differential diagnosis.

Read about his three simple techniques to help avoid the medical malpractice attorneys.

You Might Also Like:

Use Neuroscience to Effortlessly Learn All of Medical Education 

Differential Diagnosis PDF

Even with these mnemonic memory devices, you might still find remembering all of the elements of a good differential diagnosis difficult. That's why you can download the PDF version of this infographic by joining our email list. Once you are confirmed, we'll send you a welcome message that contains a link to the differential diagnosis PDF file.

Because your education never ends, we've created more infographics you may enjoy. For help generating a differential diagnosis in neurology, don't miss PECARN for the emergency management of pediatric head injury

Once you've diagnosed a head injury, read up on these must-have resources for mild traumatic brain injury that every clinician can use. 

Lastly, if you know someone who might benefit from this information, please share it with them.

Differential Diagnosis Infographic

The infographic with all three medical mnemonics for the differential diagnosis is available as a downloadable PDF file when you join our email list.

We'd love for everyone who reads this to subscribe to our blog, but we won't hold it against you if you don't. 

Click here to join our email list and immediately get the differential diagnosis PDF delivered to your inbox.

If you don't want to subscribe, you can swipe the image version for free instead.


Family Medicine Reference Differential Diagnosis – VITAMIN CDE.[Accessed March 9, 2018]. Available from: http://www.fammedref.org/mnemonic/differential-diagnosis-vitamin-cde.

Zabidi-Hussin ZA. Practical way of creating differential diagnoses through an expanded VITAMINSABCDEK mnemonic. Advances in Medical Education and Practice. 2016;7:247-248. doi:10.2147/AMEP.S106507.

First Published: March 10, 2018

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