When doctors can’t say: “I don’t know”

Mimi and Euniceby Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

Pity the poor Emergency Department physician who first studied the results of my cardiac diagnostic tests. Despite my textbook heart attack symptoms of central chest pain, nausea, sweating and pain radiating down my left arm, all of my test results that day appeared to be “normal”. So instead of admitting this puzzling discrepancy, the doc seized upon an alternative hypothesis as he pronounced confidently to me:

“You are in the right demographic for acid reflux!”

I was sent home from hospital that morning (feeling very embarrassed about having made a fuss over nothing) with his directions to make a follow-up appointment with my family physician to get a prescription for antacid drugs (to treat what turned out to be a misdiagnosis of indigestion).

Part of the problem with this scenario is the reluctance of some physicians to admit that they just do not know.

Dr. Stuart Foxman has compared doctors who are reluctant to say “I don’t know” with the same phenomenon seen among business executives. In his Doc Talk column for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, he quoted Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, authors of the book Freakonomics, who suggested that many senior people in business rarely admit to not knowing something:

“If the question at hand is within their realm of expertise – even if they have no clue of the answer – they’ll just fake it.”

Why? The authors believe that people may feel that they’re always expected to have an answer, or worry about looking bad to others. This is one of the most destructive personal factors, because it hinders actual learning.

And the world of medicine is not immune, warns Dr. Ivan Silver at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

“Doctors don’t find it easy to say ‘I don’t know.’ There’s a tradition of knowing the answers and coming up with them quickly.”

The problem, says Dr. Silver, comes when doctors don’t disclose that they don’t know, or  – like my Emergency Department physician – they confidently pronounce some kind of definitive answer pretending they do know.

Despite seeing a patient in front of him presenting with classic Hollywood Heart Attack signs, he seemed unable or unwilling to make sense of the confusing difference between my significant cardiac symptoms and those “normal” cardiac diagnostic tests. So rather than admit me for observation, his choice instead was to grasp onto the alternative hypothesis of GERD. Even I knew that pain radiating down one’s left arm isn’t a sign of acid reflux, but I actually felt relieved by the misdiagnosis at the time (I’d much rather have indigestion than a heart condition, thank you very much!) 

And the person assuring me that “It’s not your heart!” happened to have the letters M.D. after his name.

The origins of this kind of over-confident behaviour go back a long way, as Dr. Silver explains:

“Go back to teaching rounds, where medical students are grilled in front of patients and peers. An answer is anticipated, and ‘I don’t know’ is not rewarded.”

Speaking of medical school training, some critics blame med school culture itself as the beginning of the end in being honestly willing to admit ignorance, as explained by Chicago physician Dr. Alex Lickerman, author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.  He wrote:

“You first need to know how doctors are trained to think. Medical students typically employ what’s called ‘novice thinking’ when trying to figure out a diagnosis.

“They run through the entire list of everything known to cause the patient’s first symptom, then a second list of everything known to cause the patient’s second symptom, and so on. Then they look to see which diagnoses appear on all their lists and that new list becomes their list of ‘differential diagnoses.’ It’s a cumbersome but powerful technique, its name notwithstanding.

“A seasoned attending physician, on the other hand, typically employs ‘expert thinking’, defined as thinking that relies on pattern recognition. I’ve seen carpal tunnel syndrome so many times I could diagnose it in my sleep – but only learned to recognize the pattern of finger tingling in the first, second, and third digits, pain, and weakness occurring most commonly at night by my initial use of ‘novice thinking’.

“The main risk of relying on ‘expert thinking’ is early closure – that is, of ceasing to consider what else might be causing a patient’s symptoms because the pattern seems so abundantly clear.”

Dr. Allen Frances, writing in his Psychology Today column called “What Should Doctors Do When They Don’t Know What To Do?”, observed:(1)

“There is a big disconnect between the daily enthusiastic reports of great new research results and the fact that treatment outcomes have improved only slowly and selectively.

“Clearest example: we have done a lot more to defeat cancer by dramatically reducing smoking than through the entire expensive 40-year research war we have waged against it.

“One negative side effect of scientific drum-beating is the unrealistic expectation (held by doctors and patients alike) that every medical presentation can be accurately diagnosed and effectively treated.

“When, as so often is the case, this expectation is defeated by the hard reality of our limited knowledge, doctor and patient are both likely to feel grave disappointment and the relationship between them may become uncomfortable and unproductive.”

Dr. Frances also quotes Maryland neurologist Dr. Nicholas Capozzoli, who says:

“In my neurology practice, I often can’t make a specific diagnosis even after taking a careful history, doing a thorough physical exam, and ordering all the appropriate diagnostic tests.

“Such uncertainty is inherent in most of medicine – it is sad but true that lots of problems elude our current medical tools and knowledge.

“This is tough on patients. Understandably, they want (sometimes demand) clear answers about what’s going wrong and a treatment recommendation that promises cure or at least substantial relief of symptoms. My challenge is to be helpful and to maintain a healthy doctor/patient relationship even when I can offer no clear answers to diagnosis or treatment.

“This isn’t easy or natural. Doctors tend to be uncomfortable admitting uncertainty to themselves or to their patients. Too often, they feel it’s a threat to their skill, authority, or expert status to say they simply don’t know what’s causing the symptoms or that there is no magic bullet to cure them.

“Often enough, doctors default to blaming the patient with an explicit or implicit ‘it’s all in your head’.”

Blaming the patient is, as I’ve previously observed here, not only extremely upsetting to the patient, but also potentially dangerous.

Dr. Allen Frances seems to agree:

“The difficulty of accepting uncertainty is just as strong today as it ever has been. It leads to excessive testing, quack treatments, or blaming the patient.”

Consider also the distressingly common experience of female heart patients whose cardiac symptoms have been dismissed as merely those of an anxious female if their doctors are unable or unwilling to link the symptoms to a cardiac cause.

Some of the most popular cardiac misdiagnoses that heart attack survivors have told me about include wrong guesses like indigestion, menopause, stress, gall bladder issues, exhaustion, pulled muscles, dehydration and more.

But perhaps the most distressing misdiagnosis to trip from the lips of an Emergency Department physician is anxiety. This one single word is instantly both dismissive and embarrassing.

And worse, to have the diagnosis of ‘anxious female’ recorded permanently on a woman’s chart virtually guarantees a definitive psychiatric stereotype for all future medical visits.

Dr. Wendy Levinson at the University of Toronto Medical School reminds us that “uncertainty is very different from a lack of knowledge”. As much as patients may want answers, the idea that the doctor knows everything is an old model, she says – an idea which fewer and fewer patients believe anymore.

Trusting that every physician will somehow magically know everything about the millions of cells in our bodies that could be responsible for our physical symptoms is indeed an unrealistic expectation, as Dr. Nicholas Capozzoli sums up nicely:

“After 40 years of practicing medicine, I’ve become quite comfortable saying that I simply don’t know what’s causing the problem. It serves my patients well to admit that things are still too unclear to call.  I make clear that I take their symptoms very seriously and appreciate how much their lives are impacted by them.”

“Given how complicated are our brains and bodies, it is not at all surprising that medical science is far from understanding all of their workings.

“I emphasize that we are waiting for science to catch up, that lifestyle changes can make a big difference, and that I am on their side. This goes far in maintaining personal dignity and the integrity of the doctor/patient relationship.”

“But confronting the reality of uncertainty almost always beats the creation of a false certainty.”

And Dr. Stuart Foxman suggests offering this reassuring bit of truthfulness to patients:

“I don’t know – but I’ll do my best to find out for you.”

  Image of Mimi & Eunice written/drawn by Nina Paley


1. Allen J. Frances, M.D. “What Should Doctors Do When They Don’t Know What to Do? Uncertainty certainly beats false certainty.” Psychology Today. June 24, 2013

Q: What’s your reaction to doctors who say “I don’t know”?


NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote much more about diagnosis and misdiagnosis in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease . You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).

See also:

Six rules for navigating your next doctor’s appointment

When patients are seen as “The Enemy”

How to communicate your heart symptoms to your doctor

Misdiagnosis: the perils of “unwarranted certainty”

Experts: Why so wrong so often?

When you fear being labelled a “difficult” patient

The ’18 Second Rule’: why your doctor missed your heart disease diagnosis


17 thoughts on “When doctors can’t say: “I don’t know”

  1. Pingback: Pedagogiskevers
  2. I recently experienced the answer “I don’t know” from a orthopaedic. After his exam, he appeared frustrated. The words “I don’t know” along with it could be this or that. I could send you for a test but it might not reveal much. I didn’t feel angry. In fact I appreciated his honesty. He did send in a request for a test which should occur soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. It is very important for Healthcare providers to say “I don’t know” which ultimately builds better rapport, trust, and communication with the patient. I just told a patient this week that I did not know why something was happening, but discussed the possibilities and reassured her that we would work through the situation together.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “I don’t know…” My favorite words.

    My next favorites, “Let’s find out!”

    I agree with the patient having “Homework”; diagnosis and treatment should be a team effort.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Such an important message! You have done a wonderful job articulating the need for our HCPs to be comfortable saying .. I Don’t Know. It is very important for HCPs to understand that these three powerful words can bolster their credibility and the trust their patients have in them. I mentioned it on my blog in 2010 — but your piece was far better articulated. 😉

    Be well
    Howard Luks MD

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Dr. Luks! (Readers, don’t miss that 2010 post which includes a great 4-minute video, too! Love Dr. Luks’ suggestion to have both patient and doc “do some homework” and meet later to discuss!)


  6. Pingback: Howard J. Luks, MD
  7. A doctor who says s/he doesn’t know? To me it’s a breath of fresh air. My medical history is packed with confident misdiagnoses, and my experience tells me that the really good ones pay attention to all the possibilities, and so are uncertain. Uncertainty was the clincher while choosing my neurosurgeon.

    When the MRI revealed my brain tumor, after years of dismissal of my headaches and odd pains behind my right eye, the first neurosurgeon I saw at the HMO was young, just a few years from his fellowship at Stanford, with a warm sense of humor. He told me that the MRI was ambiguous: He thought I had a meningioma (not cancer, but they often grow back) but with my radiation history we had to be open to other possibilities and would only know for sure with the post-op pathology report. When asked what surgery would entail, he said that my tumor was in a relatively accessible location, but he might take different directions depending on the state of the tumor, and he described those, but he wouldn’t know until he was there. And I appreciated his honesty.

    The neuroradiologist in my sister-in-law’s group (who had looked at my MRI after we found the tumor) was just as uncertain (“probably an meningioma, but with her history…?”) and recommended consultation with The Famous Guy at UC San Francisco. From Ontario, by the way. And he was senior with tremendous prestige in the field, very interested and uncertain. His list of candidates was just about the same as the young neurologist at the HMO, and he told me that my head pains were most certainly from the tumor. He asked me to please let them know what it turned out to be and how things went. “We’re all still learning, after all.”

    The second HMO neurosurgeon I saw was senior and confident. He was sure that I had a meningioma, and that they would get it all out and I was going to be just fine. Slam dunk.

    And my husband and I both had the same reaction: We wanted the first one. I felt that he would pay close attention, wouldn’t minimize or dismiss any evidence or complications, and would be unlikely to cover up. And, for us, that was absolutely the right decision. It was a meningioma; he took care to avoid any complication, no matter how slight. This morning I go back for my second post-op MRI and so far everything has been fine.

    When told of our decision process, quite a few friends have have been appalled and told us that they would have chosen the second HMO neurosurgeon. In their eyes, admission of uncertainty from the first would have entirely disqualified him. Which runs entirely counter to my experience.

    Uncertainty means that someone is paying attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A profoundly important story, Kathleen, and one that I think many physicians would find reassuring in many ways. Love that “Uncertainty means that someone is paying attention” comment!!


  8. I would say that most often patients are extremely unhappy when I tell them I don’t know.

    What I usually do is say that I am happy to help them get a second opinion at a major medical center or center of excellence. I think that this reaction is partly a cultural issue in the United States (absolute belief in technology, instantaneous gratification, the cult of “no pain”) and partly a holdover of the physician worship/perfection model.

    Human beings are miraculously made and however much we would like to believe that our technology and knowledge are all-knowing, sometimes we don’t have answers.

    That begs the question of having a classic presentation of an illness and missing the diagnosis, as happened to you and happens to many every day.

    Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your physician’s perspective here, Dr. Anne. It’s such a dilemma because, as you say, most patients expect their docs to come up with THE answer to their medical problems – even when that’s just not a realistic expectation. Michael Millenson tweeted this morning his observation: ‘Sometimes wrong, but never in doubt’ replaces: ‘First, Do No Harm’.


    2. I don’t think you can blame patients for being unhappy when you tell them you don’t know. It’s just a natural reaction to facing an unsolved problem. Remember, you are not the one who is sick. They may be unhappy, but it is rarely directed at you as long as you don’t do something to make them upset at you, like not admitting when you don’t know something. When they find out you misled them, you can expect them to be mad at you.

      If you can admit here that “sometimes we don’t have [the] answers”, why hide this from your patients in the clinic?

      The problem with projecting an air of confidence when you really don’t know is well laid out in this article and I have to say it is selfish for physicians to make up answers in order to save their image. The stakes are just too high for any doctor to do that.

      Consider what you are doing when you give a misdiagnosis to save yourself from saying you don’t know. Your patient may be misled to take unnecessary medication which creates unnecessary cost and opens the possibility of unnecessary adverse effects.

      If you don’t want people to have the misperception that you know everything, maybe you could help by admitting you don’t know sometimes. By not acknowledging ignorance, you are just perpetuating the misperception.

      Many people don’t understand that medicine is science in the research institutions but at least partly (if not mostly) art in practice. What you are observing is not just an overconfidence in technology, but the misconception that the physician in the clinic is somehow tied to the advancement in science. No, most physicians are utilizers of technology, the technology itself is developed by researchers and takes years to get into practice.

      There are many new ideas that physicians who underwent their initial training decades ago will not know of. This is not a fault of the physicians but he/she must be willing to accept and admit that fact. A lot of patients with chronic problems will have done their own research. Their opinions will be flawed because of their lack of training, but they may bring to the table ideas that the physician was not readily aware of. The right response is not to throw everything they say out of hand because you think you know everything already.


  9. Hi, I am a 57 year old professional woman and was apparently in excellent health, fit, strong and out for a regular morning jog while visiting my younger brother and his family. I was irritatingly tired and had what I thought was indigestion – a dull ache in between my breasts, nothing earth shattering.

    Luckily my brother recognised the signs and had me admitted to the local ER (Richardsbay in KZN, South Africa) on 1 June 2013 where I was diagnosed correctly, stabilised under the care of a Cardiologist and transferred to a Heart Clinic in Durban for an angiogram.

    An emergency double bypass had to be performed as the arteries were too damaged to tolerate a stent. I count myself very lucky as I probably would have ignored the symptoms if I were at home!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Anname and welcome to the very exclusive club that nobody ever wants to join! You have a very smart brother, and you were smart to go along with his suggestions to seek help despite your vague symptoms. Hope you are doing well now.


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