Comfort with uncertainty: reframing our conceptions of how clinicians navigate complex clinical situations

  • Jonathan S. IlgenEmail author
  • Kevin W. Eva
  • Anique de Bruin
  • David A. Cook
  • Glenn Regehr


Learning to take safe and effective action in complex settings rife with uncertainty is essential for patient safety and quality care. Doing so is not easy for trainees, as they often consider certainty to be a necessary precursor for action and subsequently struggle in these settings. Understanding how skillful clinicians work comfortably when uncertain, therefore, offers an important opportunity to facilitate trainees’ clinical reasoning development. This critical review aims to define and elaborate the concept of ‘comfort with uncertainty’ in clinical settings by juxtaposing a variety of frameworks and theories in ways that generate more deliberate ways of thinking about, and researching, this phenomenon. We used Google Scholar to identify theoretical concepts and findings relevant to the topics of ‘uncertainty,’ ‘ambiguity,’ ‘comfort,’ and ‘confidence,’ and then used preliminary findings to pursue parallel searches within the social cognition, cognition, sociology, sociocultural, philosophy of medicine, and medical education literatures. We treat uncertainty as representing the lived experience of individuals, reflecting the lack of confidence one feels that he/she has an incomplete mental representation of a particular problem. Comfort, in contrast, references confidence in one’s capabilities to act (or not act) in a safe and effective manner given the situation. Clinicians’ ‘comfort with uncertainty’ is informed by a variety of perceptual, emotional, and situational cues, and is enabled through a combination of self-monitoring and forward planning. Potential implications of using ‘comfort with uncertainty’ as a framework for educational and research programs are explored.


Uncertainty Ambiguity Comfort Clinical reasoning Complexity Expertise Medical decision-making 



The authors wish to thank Alisha Brown, MD, Joshua Jauregui, MD, Laura Welsh, MD, and Bjorn Watsjold, MD for their constructive critiques.


This review was supported by an award from the Society of Directors of Research in Medical Education (SDRME).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Emergency Medicine and Center for Leadership and Innovation in Medical EducationUniversity of Washington School of MedicineSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Department of Medicine and Centre for Health Education ScholarshipUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  3. 3.Department of Educational Development and Research, School of Health Professions EducationMaastricht UniversityMaastrichtThe Netherlands
  4. 4.Department of Medicine and Office of Applied Scholarship and Education ScienceMayo Clinic College of Medicine and ScienceRochesterUSA
  5. 5.Department of Surgery and Centre for Health Education ScholarshipUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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