Managing Diagnostic Uncertainty in Primary Care: a systematic critical review

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

  • External authors:
  • Rahul Alam
  • Efharis Panagopoulou


Diagnostic uncertainty is one of the largest contributory factors to the occurrence of
diagnostic errors across most specialties in medicine and arguably uncertainty is
greatest in primary care due to the undifferentiated symptoms primary care physicians are often presented with. Physicians can respond to diagnostic uncertainty in various ways through the interplay of a series of cognitive, emotional and ethical reactions. The consequences of such uncertainty however can impact negatively upon the primary care practitioner, their patients and the wider healthcare system. Understanding the
nature of the existing empirical literature in relation to managing diagnostic uncertainty in primary medical care is a logical and necessary first step in order to understand what solutions are already available and/or to aid the development of any training or
feedback aimed at better managing this uncertainty. This review is the first to characterize the existing empirical literature on managing diagnostic uncertainty in primary care.

Sixteen databases were systematically searched from inception to present with no restrictions. Hand searches of relevant websites and reference lists of included studies were also conducted. Two authors conducted abstract/article screening and data extraction. PRISMA guidelines were adhered to.

10 studies met the inclusion criteria. A narrative and conceptual synthesis was undertaken under the premises of critical reviews. Results suggest that studies have focused on internal factors (traits, skills and strategies) associated with managing diagnostic uncertainty with only one external intervention identified.
Cognitive factors ranged from the influences of epistemological viewpoints to practical approaches such as greater knowledge of the patient, utilizing resources to hand and using appropriate
safety netting techniques. Emotional aspects of uncertainty management included clinicians embracing uncertainty and working with provisional diagnoses. Ethical aspects of uncertainty management centered on communicating diagnostic uncertainties with patients. Personality traits and characteristics influenced each of the three domains.
There is little empirical evidence on how uncertainty is managed in general practice. However we highlight how the extant literature can be conceptualised into cognitive, emotional and ethical aspects of uncertainty which may help clinicians be more aware of their own biases as well as provide a platform for future research.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalBMC Family Practice
Publication statusPublished - 7 Aug 2017

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