Temporal changes in tolerance of uncertainty among medical students: insights from an exploratory study

Med Educ Online. 2015 Sep 8;20:28285. doi: 10.3402/meo.v20.28285. eCollection 2015.


Background: Physicians' tolerance of uncertainty (TU) is a trait potentially associated with desirable outcomes, and emerging evidence suggests it may change over time. Past studies of TU, however, have been cross-sectional and have not measured tolerance of the different, specific types of uncertainty that physicians confront. We addressed these limitations in a longitudinal exploratory study of medical students.

Methods: At the end of medical school (Doctor of Medicine degree) Years 1 and 4, a cohort of 26 students at a US medical school completed measures assessing tolerance of different types of uncertainty: 1) complexity (uncertainty arising from features of information that make it difficult to comprehend); 2) risk (uncertainty arising from the indeterminacy of future outcomes); and 3) ambiguity (uncertainty arising from limitations in the reliability, credibility, or adequacy of information). Change in uncertainty-specific TU was assessed using paired t-tests.

Results: Between Years 1 and 4, there was a significant decrease in tolerance of ambiguity (t=3.22, p=0.004), but no change in students' tolerance of complexity or risk.

Conclusions: Tolerance of ambiguity--but not other types of uncertainty--decreases during medical school, suggesting that TU is a multidimensional, partially mutable state. Future studies should measure tolerance of different uncertainties and examine how TU might be improved.

Keywords: ambiguity; medical students; tolerance; uncertainty.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Risk Assessment
  • Students, Medical / psychology*
  • Time Factors
  • Uncertainty*