Examining the patterns of uncertainty across clinical reasoning tasks: Effects of contextual factors on the clinical reasoning process

Divya Ramani, Michael Soh, Jerusalem Merkebu, Steven J. Durning, Alexis Battista, Elexis McBee, Temple Ratcliffe, Abigail Konopasky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Uncertainty is common in clinical reasoning given the dynamic processes required to come to a diagnosis. Though some uncertainty is expected during clinical encounters, it can have detrimental effects on clinical reasoning. Likewise, evidence has established the potentially detrimental effects of the presence of distracting contextual factors (i.e., factors other than case content needed to establish a diagnosis) in a clinical encounter on clinical reasoning. The purpose of this study was to examine how linguistic markers of uncertainty overlap with different clinical reasoning tasks and how distracting contextual factors might affect physicians' clinical reasoning process. In this descriptive exploratory study, physicians participated in a live or video recorded simulated clinical encounter depicting a patient with unstable angina with and without contextual factors. Transcribed think-aloud reflections were coded using Goldszmidt's clinical reasoning task typology (26 tasks encompassing the domains of framing, diagnosis, management, and reflection) and then those coded categories were examined using linguistic markers of uncertainty (e.g., probably, possibly, etc.). Thirty physicians with varying levels of experience participated. Consistent with expectations, descriptive analysis revealed that physicians expressed more uncertainty in cases with distracting contextual factors compared to those without. Across the four domains of reasoning tasks, physicians expressed the most uncertainty in diagnosis and least in reflection. These results highlight how linguistic markers of uncertainty can shed light on the role contextual factors might play in uncertainty which can lead to error and why it is essential to find ways of managing it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)299-305
Number of pages7
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • clinical reasoning
  • clinical reasoning tasks
  • context specificity
  • contextual factors
  • linguistics
  • uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Biochemistry, medical
  • Health Policy
  • Clinical Biochemistry
  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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