Communicating uncertainties when disclosing diagnostic test results for (Alzheimer's) dementia in the memory clinic: The ABIDE project

Leonie N. C. Visser, Sophie A. R. Pelt, Marleen Kunneman, Femke H. Bouwman, Jules J. Claus, Kees J. Kalisvaart, Liesbeth Hempenius, Marlijn H. de Beer, Gerwin Roks, Leo Boelaarts, Mariska Kleijer, Wiesje M. van der Flier, Ellen M. A. Smets, Marij A. Hillen

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Background: The development of novel diagnostics enables increasingly earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Timely diagnosis may benefit patients by reducing their uncertainty regarding the cause of symptoms, yet does not always provide patients with the desired certainty. Objective: To examine, using both quantitative and qualitative methods, uncertainty communicated by memory clinic clinicians in post-diagnostic testing consultations with patients and their caregivers. Methods: First, we identified all uncertainty expressions of 22 clinicians in audiotaped post-diagnostic testing consultations with 78 patients. Second, we statistically explored relationships between patient/clinician characteristics and uncertainty expressions. Third, the transcribed uncertainty expressions were qualitatively analysed, determining the topic to which they pertained, their source and initiator/elicitor (clinicians/patients/caregivers). Results: Within 57/78 (73%) consultations, clinicians expressed in total 115 uncertainties, of which 37% elicited by the patient or caregiver. No apparent relationships were found between patient/clinician characteristics and whether or not, and how often clinicians expressed uncertainty. Uncertainty expressions pertained to ten different topics, most frequently patient's diagnosis and symptom progression. Expressed uncertainty was mostly related to the unpredictability of the future and limits to available knowledge. Discussion and conclusions: The majority of clinicians openly discussed the limits of scientific knowledge and diagnostic testing with patients and caregivers in the dementia context. Noticeably, clinicians did not discuss uncertainty in about one quarter of consultations. More evidence is needed on the beneficial and/or harmful effects on patients of discussing uncertainty with them. This knowledge can be used to support clinicians to optimally convey uncertainty and facilitate patients' uncertainty management.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)52-62
Number of pages11
JournalHealth expectations
Issue number1
Early online date22 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2020


  • Alzheimer's disease
  • dementia
  • diagnostic work-up
  • memory clinic
  • physician-patient communication
  • uncertainty

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