What doctors say when uncertain of a patient's diagnosis makes a difference

Doctor looking at X-ray
What doctors say to patients when there's an uncertain diagnosis can effect confidence and trust. (Getty/bernardbodo)

Choice of words matter when doctors tell patients they are uncertain of a diagnosis, according to a new study. 

What a doctor said made a difference in a study of the parents of pediatric patients published in the International Journal for Quality in Health Care.

RELATED: 3 things physicians should never say to a patient

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Researchers found that parents may react less negatively in terms of perceived competence, physician confidence and trust, and adherence when a doctor conveys diagnostic uncertainly using implicit strategies, such as discussing the most likely diagnosis or talking about several possible diagnoses under consideration.

Parents were more negative when doctors gave an uncertain diagnosis and were explicit, such as directly stating they were unsure of the diagnosis, the study found.

"Misdiagnosis is common in medical practice and to enable improvements, uncertainty of diagnosis is something both doctors and patients will need to embrace," said the study’s senior author Hardeep Singh, M.D., a researcher at the Houston Veterans Affairs Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness and Safety and Baylor College of Medicine, in an announcement. "Our study provides a foundation for future development of evidence-based guidance on how doctors can best communicate diagnostic uncertainty to patients to improve diagnosis and care outcomes."

Words can help bond a doctor-patient relationship or create a major obstacle, making it important that doctors carefully consider what they say to patients. For instance, doctors are urged not to undermine themselves, such as telling a patient they don’t know what is wrong.