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Resident uncertainty in clinical decision making and impact on patient care: a qualitative study
  1. J M Farnan1,
  2. J K Johnson1,
  3. D O Meltzer1,2,
  4. H J Humphrey3,
  5. V M Arora1,3
  1. 1
    Section of Hospital Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA
  2. 2
    Department of Economics and Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA
  3. 3
    Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA
  1. Dr J M Farnan, University of Chicago, 5841 South Maryland Avenue, MC 2007, AMB B226A, Chicago, Illinois, USA; jfarnan{at}


Background: Little is known regarding how internal medicine residents manage uncertainty during decision making and subsequent effects on patient care. The aims of this study were to describe types of uncertainty faced by residents, strategies employed to manage uncertainty and effects on patient care.

Methods: Using critical incident technique, residents were asked to recall important clinical decisions during a recent call night, with probes to identify decisions made during uncertainty. They were also asked to report who they approached for advice. Three authors independently coded transcripts using the constant comparative method.

Results: The 42/50 (84%) interviewed residents reported 18 discrete critical incidents. Six categories emerged and mapped to the domains of the Beresford Model of Clinical Uncertainty: technical uncertainty (procedural skills, knowledge of indications); conceptual uncertainty (care transitions, diagnostic decision making and management conflict) and personal uncertainty (goals of care). In managing uncertainty, residents report a “hierarchy of assistance”, using colleagues and literature for initial management, followed by senior residents, specialty fellows and, finally, the attending physician. Barriers to seeking the attending physician’s input included the existence of a defined hierarchy for assistance and fears of losing autonomy, revealing knowledge gaps, and “being a bother”. For 12 of the 18 cases reported, patient care was compromised: delay in procedure or escalation of care (n = 8); procedural complications (n = 2); and cardiac arrest (n = 2).

Conclusion: Resident uncertainty results in delays of indicated care and, in some cases, patient harm. Despite the presence of a supervisory figure, residents adhere to a hierarchy when seeking advice in clinical matters.

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  • Funding: This research was supported by the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago.

  • Competing interests: None.

  • Ethics approval: The Institutional Review Board of the Biological Sciences Division of the University of Chicago approved this study.

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