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Towards Embracing Clinical Uncertainty: Lessons from Social Work, Optometry and Medicine
Journal of Social Work
  • Marlee M. Spafford, University of Waterloo
  • Catherine F. Schryer, University of Waterloo
  • Sandra L. Campbell, University of Waterloo
  • Lorelei Lingard, University of Toronto
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Summary: The oral transmission and transformation of client information in an apprenticeship setting provides a rich environment in which to observe students and their expert supervisors managing uncertainty. In this Canadian-based study, we examined the communicative features of 12 social work supervisions involving social work students and their supervisors and enriched our observations with subsequent interviews of the participants.

Findings: Social work students viewed the acknowledgement and examination of uncertainty as a touchstone of competent social work. This observation contrasted with our past study of medical and optometry students who focused on personal deficit and a distrust of acknowledging uncertainty. Our observations and interviews revealed a unique professional signature to the novice rhetoric of uncertainty (seeking guidance, deflecting criticism, owning limits, showing competence) that suggests differing professional identities and contextual settings.

Applications: An attitudinal shift toward accepting and trusting uncertainty in medicine and optometry may facilitate an enriched educational environment for students and a more open dialogue with patients about uncertainty. The unique professional signatures of this rhetoric offer insights into how professional identity shapes attitudes and behaviors toward uncertainty and suggest a source of tension within interdisciplinary healthcare teams.


Dr. Lorelei Lingard is currently a faculty member at The University of Western Ontario.

Citation Information
Marlee M. Spafford, Catherine F. Schryer, Sandra L. Campbell and Lorelei Lingard. "Towards Embracing Clinical Uncertainty: Lessons from Social Work, Optometry and Medicine" Journal of Social Work Vol. 7 Iss. 2 (2007) p. 155 - 178
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