Aim: to propose a theoretical model of critical thinking within the nursing diagnostic process. Method: This is a descriptive exploratory study using a qualitative approach. There were three focus group sessions with seven nursing students, aiming at the definition and relationship of critical thinking skills in the diagnostic process in nursing, using content analysis. Results: it was found that the technical and scientific knowledge and clinical experience permeate phases of the diagnostic process in nursing. Data collection requires analysis, application of standards, knowledge of the patient and a contextual perspective. Collection is followed by interpretation and grouping data in a continuous process of analysis and the application of standards associated with logical reasoning. Health problems are known, generating diagnostic hypotheses to be judged using logical reasoning and discernment. At that time, the decision can be made with regard to nursing diagnosis priorities. Conclusions: The theoretical model shows the complexity of the nursing diagnostic process based on the critical thinking skills in making clinical decisions. This way, is possible to think of strategies to facilitate the operationalization of the diagnostic process in nursing
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