Communicating uncertainties when disclosing diagnostic test results for (Alzheimer's) dementia in the memory clinic: The ABIDE project

Health Expect. 2020 Feb;23(1):52-62. doi: 10.1111/hex.12964. Epub 2019 Oct 22.


Background: The development of novel diagnostics enables increasingly earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Timely diagnosis may benefit patients by reducing their uncertainty regarding the cause of symptoms, yet does not always provide patients with the desired certainty.

Objective: To examine, using both quantitative and qualitative methods, uncertainty communicated by memory clinic clinicians in post-diagnostic testing consultations with patients and their caregivers.

Methods: First, we identified all uncertainty expressions of 22 clinicians in audiotaped post-diagnostic testing consultations with 78 patients. Second, we statistically explored relationships between patient/clinician characteristics and uncertainty expressions. Third, the transcribed uncertainty expressions were qualitatively analysed, determining the topic to which they pertained, their source and initiator/elicitor (clinicians/patients/caregivers).

Results: Within 57/78 (73%) consultations, clinicians expressed in total 115 uncertainties, of which 37% elicited by the patient or caregiver. No apparent relationships were found between patient/clinician characteristics and whether or not, and how often clinicians expressed uncertainty. Uncertainty expressions pertained to ten different topics, most frequently patient's diagnosis and symptom progression. Expressed uncertainty was mostly related to the unpredictability of the future and limits to available knowledge.

Discussion and conclusions: The majority of clinicians openly discussed the limits of scientific knowledge and diagnostic testing with patients and caregivers in the dementia context. Noticeably, clinicians did not discuss uncertainty in about one quarter of consultations. More evidence is needed on the beneficial and/or harmful effects on patients of discussing uncertainty with them. This knowledge can be used to support clinicians to optimally convey uncertainty and facilitate patients' uncertainty management.

Keywords: Alzheimer's disease; dementia; diagnostic work-up; memory clinic; physician-patient communication; uncertainty.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease / diagnosis*
  • Ambulatory Care Facilities
  • Caregivers / psychology
  • Communication*
  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine*
  • Disclosure*
  • Female
  • Health Personnel / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Netherlands
  • Patients / psychology
  • Patients / statistics & numerical data*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Uncertainty*