"I Was Worried About the Patient, but I Wasn't Feeling Worried": How Physicians Judge Their Comfort in Settings of Uncertainty

Jonathan S. Ilgen*, Judith L. Bowen, Anique B. H. de Bruin, Glenn Regehr, Pim W. Teunissen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review



Clinical educators often raise concerns that learners are not comfortable with uncertainty in clinical work, yet existing literature provides little insight into practicing clinicians' experiences of comfort when navigating the complex, ill-defined problems pervasive in practice. Exploring clinicians' comfort as they identify and manage uncertainty in practice could help us better support learners through their discomfort.


Between December 2018 and April 2019, the authors employed a constructivist grounded theory approach to explore experiences of uncertainty in emergency medicine faculty. The authors used a critical incident technique to elicit narratives about decision making immediately following participants' clinical shifts, exploring how they experienced uncertainty and made real-time judgments regarding their comfort to manage a given problem. Two investigators analyzed the transcripts, coding data line-by-line using constant comparative analysis to organize narratives into focused codes. These codes informed the development of conceptual categories that formed a framework for understanding comfort with uncertainty.


Participants identified multiple forms of uncertainty, organized around their understanding of the problems they were facing and the potential actions they could take. When discussing their comfort in these situations, they described a fluid, actively negotiated state. This state was informed by their efforts to project forward and imagine how a problem might evolve, with boundary conditions signaling the borders of their expertise. It was also informed by ongoing monitoring activities pertaining to patients, their own metacognitions, and their environment.


The authors' findings offer nuances to current notions of comfort with uncertainty. Uncertainty involved clinical, environmental, and social aspects, and comfort dynamically evolved through iterative cycles of forward planning and monitoring.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S67-S72
Number of pages6
JournalAcademic Medicine
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020


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