Understanding and managing uncertainty in health care: revisiting and advancing sociological contributions

Sociol Health Illn. 2020 Aug;42 Suppl 1:1-20. doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.13160. Epub 2020 Aug 5.


In this collection we revisit the enduring phenomenon of uncertainty in health care, and demonstrate how it still offers coherence and significance as an analytic concept. Through empirical studies of contemporary examples of health care related uncertainties and their management, our collection explores the different ways in which uncertainty may be articulated, enacted and experienced. The papers address a diverse range of healthcare contexts - Alzheimer's disease, neonatal surgery, cardiovascular disease prevention, cancer, addiction (use of alcohol and other drugs during pregnancy), mental health/disorders and medical education - and many tackle issues of contemporary relevance, such as an ageing population, and novel medical interventions and their sequelae. These empirical papers are complemented by a further theoretical contribution, which considers the role of 'implicit normativity' in masking and containing potential ethical uncertainty. By mapping themes across the collection, in this introduction we present a number of core analytical strands: (1) conceptualising uncertainty; (2) intersections of uncertainty with aspects of care; (3) managing uncertainty; and (4) structural constraints, economic austerity and uncertainty work. We reflect on the methodological and theoretical stances used to think sociologically about uncertainty in health care, and the strengths, silences and gaps we observe in the collection. We conclude by considering the implications of the insights gained for 'synthesising certainty' in practice and for future research in this area.