Physicians often struggle with telling patients when they are unsure about a diagnosis. In the absence of clarity, doctors may fear losing a patient’s trust by appearing unsure.
Yet diagnostic uncertainty is an inevitable part of medicine.
“It’s often uncertain what is really going on. People have lots of unspecific symptoms,” said Gordon D. Schiff, MD, a patient safety researcher at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.
By one estimate, more than one-third of patients are discharged from an emergency department without a clear diagnosis. Physicians may order more tests to try to resolve uncertainty, but this method is not foolproof and may lead to increased healthcare costs. Physicians can use an uncertain diagnosis as an opportunity to improve conversations with patients, Schiff said.
“How do you talk to patients about that? How do you convey that?” Schiff asked.
To begin to answer these questions, Schiff and colleagues developed four clinical scenarios carrying unclear diagnoses and asked primary care physicians how they would convey the lack of clarity to patients. The scenarios included an enlarged lymph node in a patient in remission for lymphoma, which could suggest recurrence of the disease but not necessarily so; a patient with a new-onset headache; and another patient with an unexplained fever and a respiratory tract infection.
For each vignette, the researchers also asked patient advocates — many of whom had experienced receiving an incorrect diagnosis — for their thoughts on how the conversation should go.
Almost 70 people were consulted (24 primary care physicians, 40 patients, and five experts in informatics and quality and safety). Schiff and his colleagues produced six standardized elements that should be part of a conversation whenever a diagnosis is unclear.
The most likely diagnosis, along with any alternatives if this isn’t certain, with phrases such as, “Sometimes we don’t have the answers, but we will keep trying to figure out what is going on”
Next steps — lab tests, return visits, etc
Expected time frame for patient’s improvement and recovery
Full disclosure of the limitations of the physical examination or any lab tests
Ways to contact the physician going forward
Patient insights on their experience and reaction to what they just heard
The researchers, who published their findings this week in JAMA Network Open, recommend that the conversation be transcribed in real time using voice recognition software and a microphone, and then printed for the patient to take home. The physician should make eye contact with the patient during the conversation, they suggested.
“Patients felt it was a conversation, that they actually understood what was said. Most patients felt like they were partners during the encounter,” said Maram Khazen, PhD, a coauthor of the paper, who studies communication dynamics. Khazen was a visiting postdoctoral fellow with Schiff during the study, and is now a lecturer at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College in Israel.
A Great Start
Hardeep Singh, MD, MPH, a patient safety researcher at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, called the new work “a great start,” but said that the complexity of the field warrants more research into the tool. Singh was not involved in the study.
Singh pointed out that many of the patient voices came from spokespeople for advocacy groups, and that these participants are not necessarily representative of actual people with unclear diagnoses.
“The choice of words really matters,” said Singh, who led a 2018 study that showed that people reacted more negatively when physicians bluntly acknowledged uncertainty than when they walked patients through different possible diagnoses. Schiff and Khazen’s framework offers good principles for discussing uncertainty, he added, but further research is needed on the optimal language to use during conversations.
“It’s really encouraging that we’re seeing high quality research like this, that leverages patient engagement principles,” said Dimitrios Papanagnou, MD, MPH, an emergency medicine physician and vice dean of medicine at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Papanagnou, who was not part of the study, called for diverse patients to be part of conversations about diagnostic uncertainty.
“Are we having patients from diverse experiences, from underrepresented groups, participate in this kind of work?” Papanagnou asked. Schiff and Khazen said they agree that the tool needs to be tested in larger samples of diverse patients.
Some common themes about how to communicate diagnostic uncertainty are emerging in multiple areas of medicine. Papanagnou helped develop an uncertainty communication checklist for discharging patients from an emergency department to home, with principles similar to those that Schiff and Khazen recommend for primary care providers.
JAMA Netw Open. Published online March 9, 2023. Full text; 2023;6(3):e232218. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.2218.
The study was funded by Harvard Hospitals’ malpractice insurer, the Controlled Risk Insurance Company (CRICO). The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
Marcus A. Banks, MA, is a journalist based in New York City, who covers health news with a focus on new cancer research. His work appears in Medscape, Cancer Today, The Scientist, Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News, Slate, TCTMD, and Spectrum.
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