Article Title

General practitioners' experiences of, and responses to, uncertainty in prostate cancer screening: Insights from a qualitative study

Abstract

Background:

Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing for prostate cancer is controversial. There are unresolved tensions and disagreements amongst experts, and clinical guidelines conflict. This both reflects and generates significant uncertainty about the appropriateness of screening. Little is known about general practitioners’ (GPs’) perspectives and experiences in relation to PSA testing of asymptomatic men. In this paper we asked the following questions: (1) What are the primary sources of uncertainty as described by GPs in the context of PSA testing? (2) How do GPs experience and respond to different sources of uncertainty?

Methods This was a qualitative study that explored general practitioners’ current approaches to, and reasoning about, PSA testing of asymptomatic men. We draw on accounts generated from interviews with 69 general practitioners located in Australia (n = 40) and the United Kingdom (n = 29). The interviews were conducted in 2013–2014. Data were analysed using grounded theory methods. Uncertainty in PSA testing was identified as a core issue.

Findings

Australian GPs reported experiencing substantially more uncertainty than UK GPs. This seemed partly explainable by notable differences in conditions of practice between the two countries. Using Han et al’s taxonomy of uncertainty as an initial framework, we first outline the different sources of uncertainty GPs (mostly Australian) described encountering in relation to prostate cancer screening and what the uncertainty was about. We then suggest an extension to Han et al’s taxonomy based on our analysis of data relating to the varied ways that GPs manage uncertainties in the context of PSA testing.We outline three broad strategies: (1) taking charge of uncertainty; (2) engaging others in managing uncertainty; and (3) transferring the responsibility for reducing or managing some uncertainties to other parties.

Conclusion

Our analysis suggests some GPs experienced uncertainties associated with ambiguous guidance and the complexities of their situation as professionals with responsibilities to patients as considerably burdensome. This raises important questions about responsibility for uncertainty. In Australia in particular they feel insufficiently supported by the health care system to practice in ways that are recognisably consistent with ‘evidence based’ professional standards and appropriate for patients. More work is needed to clarify under what circumstances and how uncertainty should be communicated. Closer attention to different types and aspects of the uncertainty construct could be useful.

Keywords

prostate cancer screening, prostate cancer, PSA

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Link to Publisher Version (DOI)

http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0153299