Diagnosis is a complex, iterative, and nonlinear process, often occurring over time. When presenting signs, symptoms, and diagnostic testing cannot be integrated into a diagnosis, clinicians are confronted with diagnostic uncertainty. Our aim was to study the self-reported cognitive, communication, and management behaviors of pediatric emergency medicine (PEM) and pediatric hospital medicine (PHM) physicians regarding diagnostic uncertainty.


A qualitative study was conducted through focus groups with PEM and PHM physicians in a large academic pediatric medical center. Four focus groups were conducted. Interviews were recorded, deidentified, and transcribed by a team member. Thematic analysis was used to review the transcripts, highlight ideas, and organize ideas into themes.


Themes were categorized using the model of the diagnostic process from the National Academy of Sciences. “Red flags” and “gut feelings” were prominent during the information, integration, and interpretation phases. To combat diagnostic uncertainty, physicians employed strategies such as “the diagnostic pause” and having a set of “fresh eyes” to review the data. It was important to all clinicians to rule out any “cannot miss” diagnoses. Interphysician communication was direct; communication with patient and families about uncertainty was less direct because of physician concern of being thought of as untrustworthy. Contingency planning, “disposition over diagnosis” by ensuring patient safety, the “test of time,” and availability of resources were techniques used by physicians to manage diagnostic uncertainty.


Physicians shared common mitigation strategies, which included consulting colleagues and targeting cannot miss diagnoses, but gaps remain regarding communicating diagnostic uncertainty to families.

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