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"You may think that the consultants are great, and they know everything, but they don't": exploring how new emergency medicine consultants experience uncertainty.

BACKGROUND: Uncertainty is particularly obvious in emergency medicine (EM) due to the characteristics of the patient cohort, time constraints, and busy environment. Periods of transition are thought to add to uncertainty. Managing uncertainty is recognised as a key ability for medical practice, but is often not addressed explicitly. This study explored how new consultants in EM experience uncertainty, with the aim of making explicit what is often hidden and potentially informing support for doctors to manage the uncertainty they face.

METHODS: This was a qualitative study using interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA). Five consultants working in the UK within one year of achieving a certificate of completion of training were interviewed online during 2021, these were transcribed and analysed using IPA.

RESULTS: Three superordinate themes were identified: 'transition and performance as a source of uncertainty', 'uncertainty and decision-making in the context of the emergency department' and 'sharing uncertainty and asking for help'. The transition created uncertainty related to their professional identity that was compounded by a lack of useful feedback. There was tension between perceived expectations of certainty and the recognition of uncertainty in practice. EM doctors were seen as experts in managing uncertainty, with responses to uncertainty including gathering information, sharing uncertainty and seeking help. Expressing uncertainty was viewed as necessary for good patient care but could be risky to credibility, with psychological safety and role modelling behaviour making it easier for the participants to express uncertainty.

CONCLUSION: This study highlights the need for new consultants to have psychologically safe, reflective spaces to think through uncertainties with others. This appears to reduce uncertainty, and also act as a source of feedback. The study adds to the existing calls to address uncertainty more explicitly in training, and challenge the expectations of certainty that exist within medicine.

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