Conveying the uncertainty inherent in clinical practice has rightly become a focus of medical training. To date, much of the emphasis aims to encourage trainees to acknowledge and accept uncertainty. Intolerance of uncertainty is associated with medical student distress and a tendency in clinicians toward overtreatment. The authors argue that a deeper, philosophical understanding of the nature of uncertainty would allow students and clinicians to move beyond simple acceptance to explicating and mitigating uncertainty in practice.
Uncertainty in clinical medicine can be categorized philosophically as moral, metaphysical, and epistemic uncertainty. Philosophers of medicine—in a way analogous to ethicists a half century ago—can be brought into medical education and medical practice to help students and physicians explore the epistemic and metaphysical roots of clinical uncertainty. Such an approach does not require medical students to master philosophy and should not involve adding new course work to an already-crowded medical curriculum. Rather, the goal is to provide students with the language and reasoning skills to recognize, evaluate, and mitigate uncertainty as it arises. The authors suggest ways in which philosophical concepts can be introduced in a practical fashion into a variety of currently existing educational formats. Bringing the philosophy of medicine into medical education promises not only to improve the training of physicians but, ultimately, to lead to more mindful clinical practice, to the benefit of physicians and patients alike.