Year of Award


Document Type

Professional Paper

Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name

Communication Studies

Department or School/College

Department of Communication Studies

Committee Chair

Heather Voorhees

Commitee Members

Daisy Rooks, Greg Larson


Healthcare, Uncertainty, Healthcare Providers, Communication, Communicative Management Strategies


University of Montana

Subject Categories

Communication | Health Communication | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Uncertainty exists ubiquitously within provider-patient interactions. Healthcare providers (HCPs) often face uncertainty during patient-provider interactions, for reasons including inconclusive test results, ambiguous communication, and lacking the resources to make diagnoses. When healthcare providers experience uncertainty, their behavior and communication can be negatively impacted. For example, prior research suggests when HCPs experience uncertainty, they may engage in authoritative, prejudiced and assumption-ridden behavior towards patients (Dietta & Rand, 2007; Drewniak et al., 2017: Portnoy et al., 2013; Poteat et al., 2013). To date, research on HCP uncertainty has been limited to specific health conditions and contexts such as cancer, vascular anomalies, and asthma patients (Dietta & Rand, 2007; Kerr & Sisk, 2021). Additionally, studies that have explored uncertainty mainly focused on medical uncertainty, leaving relational uncertainty largely undefined and vaguely understood. This paper defines both medical and relational uncertainty and answers a call for the exploration of how healthcare providers manage uncertainty in broad contexts (Kerr et al., 2013). Specifically, this study explored the types of patient-provider interactions that cause uncertainty and how providers communicatively and behaviorally manage these types of uncertainty. Results from semi-structure interviews (N=16) with Montana-based healthcare providers suggest that providers can experience medical uncertainty due to ambiguous medical test results and medical examinations, a lack of patient health information, whereas relational uncertainty often arises due to assumptions providers make based on patient demographics. Relational and medical uncertainty are managed differently. Providers used action-oriented communication, such as scheduling a follow up to alleviate medical uncertainty (both theirs and the patient’s). To manage relational uncertainty, providers used connection-oriented communication, such as listening to patients’ story. Implications of this study include conceptualizations of the different types of uncertainty HCPs may experience and insight into effective uncertainty management strategies.



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