"Unfortunately, I don't have an answer for you": How resident physicians communicate diagnostic uncertainty to patients during emergency department discharge

Patient Educ Couns. 2022 Jul;105(7):2053-2057. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2021.12.002. Epub 2021 Dec 9.


Objective: To describe how emergency medicine resident physicians discuss diagnostic uncertainty during a simulated ED discharge discussion.

Methods: A secondary content analysis of simulated clinical encounter audiotapes completed by emergency medicine residents across two sites.

Results: When discussing lack of diagnosis, residents explained the evaluation revealed no cause for symptoms, noted concerning diagnoses that were excluded, and acknowledged both symptoms and patients' feelings. Residents used explicit and implicit language to discuss diagnostic uncertainty with similar frequency. Almost half of the residents discussed the ED role as focused on emergent illness to give patients context for their uncertain diagnoses. However, 28% of residents in this study did not discuss diagnostic uncertainty in any form. All residents provided reassurance.

Conclusion: Residents use a range of approaches to discuss diagnostic uncertainty with patients at the time of a simulated ED discharge, with some residents omitting discussion of uncertainty entirely.

Practice implications: These findings represent the current state of communication, which needs improvement. These findings do not immediately transfer to clinical practice recommendations, but rather support a need for both further study and development of formal communication training on this topic.

Keywords: Diagnostic uncertainty; Emergency medicine; Provider communication.

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Emergency Medicine* / education
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency*
  • Patient Discharge
  • Physicians*
  • Uncertainty