Talk to the Veterans Crisis Line now
U.S. flag
An official website of the United States government

Health Services Research & Development

Go to the ORD website
Go to the QUERI website

HSR&D Citation Abstract

Search | Search by Center | Search by Source | Keywords in Title

Defining and Measuring Diagnostic Uncertainty in Medicine: A Systematic Review.

Bhise V, Rajan SS, Sittig DF, Morgan RO, Chaudhary P, Singh H. Defining and Measuring Diagnostic Uncertainty in Medicine: A Systematic Review. Journal of general internal medicine. 2018 Jan 1; 33(1):103-115.

Dimensions for VA is a web-based tool available to VA staff that enables detailed searches of published research and research projects.

If you have VA-Intranet access, click here for more information

VA staff not currently on the VA network can access Dimensions by registering for an account using their VA email address.
   Search Dimensions for VA for this citation
* Don't have VA-internal network access or a VA email address? Try searching the free-to-the-public version of Dimensions


BACKGROUND: Physicians routinely encounter diagnostic uncertainty in practice. Despite its impact on health care utilization, costs and error, measurement of diagnostic uncertainty is poorly understood. We conducted a systematic review to describe how diagnostic uncertainty is defined and measured in medical practice. METHODS: We searched OVID Medline and PsycINFO databases from inception until May 2017 using a combination of keywords and Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). Additional search strategies included manual review of references identified in the primary search, use of a topic-specific database (AHRQ-PSNet) and expert input. We specifically focused on articles that (1) defined diagnostic uncertainty; (2) conceptualized diagnostic uncertainty in terms of its sources, complexity of its attributes or strategies for managing it; or (3) attempted to measure diagnostic uncertainty. KEY RESULTS: We identified 123 articles for full review, none of which defined diagnostic uncertainty. Three attributes of diagnostic uncertainty were relevant for measurement: (1) it is a subjective perception experienced by the clinician; (2) it has the potential to impact diagnostic evaluation-for example, when inappropriately managed, it can lead to diagnostic delays; and (3) it is dynamic in nature, changing with time. Current methods for measuring diagnostic uncertainty in medical practice include: (1) asking clinicians about their perception of uncertainty (surveys and qualitative interviews), (2) evaluating the patient-clinician encounter (such as by reviews of medical records, transcripts of patient-clinician communication and observation), and (3) experimental techniques (patient vignette studies). CONCLUSIONS: The term "diagnostic uncertainty" lacks a clear definition, and there is no comprehensive framework for its measurement in medical practice. Based on review findings, we propose that diagnostic uncertainty be defined as a "subjective perception of an inability to provide an accurate explanation of the patient's health problem." Methodological advancements in measuring diagnostic uncertainty can improve our understanding of diagnostic decision-making and inform interventions to reduce diagnostic errors and overuse of health care resources.

Questions about the HSR&D website? Email the Web Team

Any health information on this website is strictly for informational purposes and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any condition.