Language is powerful when expressing diagnostic uncertainty

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Diagnostic uncertainty is omnipresent in clinical practice and communication of diagnostic uncertainty is essential. However, new findings suggest that the way clinical uncertainty is communicated could impact on a patient's willingness to adhere to advice.

In a new study, published in the International Journal for Quality in Health Care, researchers evaluated the effects of different strategies for communicating diagnostic uncertainty on patient perceptions of physician competence and visit satisfaction. Seventy-one participants were randomly assigned to one of three vignettes, each describing one of three different ways diagnostic uncertainty was communicated to parents, and then answered a 37-item web-based questionnaire.

The authors found explicit expression of uncertainty was associated with lower perceived technical competence, less trust and confidence, and lower patient adherence, compared to the two groups where parents received implicit communication. These latter two groups had comparable outcomes.

“Misdiagnosis is common in medical practice and to enable improvements, uncertainty of diagnosis is something both doctors and patients will need to embrace,” said senior author Dr Hardeep Singh. “Our study provides a foundation for future development of evidence-based guidance on how doctors can best communicate diagnostic uncertainty to patients to improve diagnosis and care outcomes.”