General practitioners' anticipated risk of cancer at referral and their attitude to risk taking and to their role as gatekeeper

J Health Serv Res Policy. 2015 Oct;20(4):210-6. doi: 10.1177/1355819615601822. Epub 2015 Sep 15.


Objectives: General practitioners have to deal with situations characterized by real but low likelihoods of serious illness. We aimed to investigate variations in general practitioners' anticipated risk of cancer when referring a patient and associations both with general practitioners' attitudes to risk taking and with their gatekeeper role.

Methods: In January 2012, all 835 active general practitioners in the county of Aarhus, Denmark, received a questionnaire including the Physician Reaction to Uncertainty scale, The Tolerance for Ambiguity scale, the Physician Risk Attitude scale and a number of single items assessing anticipated risk of cancer when referring a hypothetical 50-year-old patient, use of intuition and perception of their role as a gatekeeper.

Results: A total of 568 (68.0%) practitioners completed and returned the questionnaire. The median anticipated risk of cancer was 30% (inter-quartile range: 15%-50%) and the 5%-95% centiles were 5% and 80%. Increasing tolerance for ambiguity was strongly related to a declining anticipated risk of cancer. None of the other risk attitudes were associated with the anticipated risk of cancer at referral. Increased general practitioners' age was related to increased anticipated risk of cancer when referring (25% for general practitioners under 45 years to 43% for those 60 years or over) but not statistically important.

Conclusions: General practitioners either overestimate the risk of cancer when referring for suspected cancer or they appear to need to be very sure of the cancer diagnosis before referral. Further, focus on tolerance for ambiguity should be included in the education of general practitioners.

Keywords: anticipated risk of cancer; general practice; risk taking attitude.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Denmark
  • Female
  • General Practitioners / psychology*
  • General Practitioners / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Risk-Taking