Temporal changes in tolerance of uncertainty among medical students: insights from an exploratory study.

Document Type


Publication Date



CORE, Family Medicine, Emergency

Journal Title

Medical education online

MeSH Headings

Adult, Attitude of Health Personnel, Cross-Sectional Studies, Female, Humans, Male, Reproducibility of Results, Risk Assessment, Students, Medical, Time Factors, Uncertainty


BACKGROUND: Physicians' tolerance of uncertainty (TU) is a trait potentially associated with desirable outcomes, and emerging evidence suggests it may change over time. Past studies of TU, however, have been cross-sectional and have not measured tolerance of the different, specific types of uncertainty that physicians confront. We addressed these limitations in a longitudinal exploratory study of medical students.

METHODS: At the end of medical school (Doctor of Medicine degree) Years 1 and 4, a cohort of 26 students at a US medical school completed measures assessing tolerance of different types of uncertainty: 1) complexity (uncertainty arising from features of information that make it difficult to comprehend); 2) risk (uncertainty arising from the indeterminacy of future outcomes); and 3) ambiguity (uncertainty arising from limitations in the reliability, credibility, or adequacy of information). Change in uncertainty-specific TU was assessed using paired t-tests.

RESULTS: Between Years 1 and 4, there was a significant decrease in tolerance of ambiguity (t=3.22, p=0.004), but no change in students' tolerance of complexity or risk.

CONCLUSIONS: Tolerance of ambiguity--but not other types of uncertainty--decreases during medical school, suggesting that TU is a multidimensional, partially mutable state. Future studies should measure tolerance of different uncertainties and examine how TU might be improved.



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