Conceptual, methodological, and ethical problems in communicating uncertainty in clinical evidence

Med Care Res Rev. 2013 Feb;70(1 Suppl):14S-36S. doi: 10.1177/1077558712459361. Epub 2012 Nov 6.


The communication of uncertainty in clinical evidence is an important endeavor that poses difficult conceptual, methodological, and ethical problems. Conceptual problems include logical paradoxes in the meaning of probability and "ambiguity"--second-order uncertainty arising from the lack of reliability, credibility, or adequacy of probability information. Methodological problems include questions about optimal methods for representing fundamental uncertainties and for communicating these uncertainties in clinical practice. Ethical problems include questions about whether communicating uncertainty enhances or diminishes patient autonomy and produces net benefits or harms. This article reviews the limited but growing literature on these problems and efforts to address them and identifies key areas of focus for future research. It is argued that the critical need moving forward is for greater conceptual clarity and consistent representational methods that make the meaning of various uncertainties understandable, and for clinical interventions to support patients in coping with uncertainty in decision making.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Decision Making / ethics
  • Evidence-Based Medicine / ethics
  • Evidence-Based Medicine / standards
  • Humans
  • Physician-Patient Relations* / ethics
  • Probability
  • Uncertainty