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Genet Test Mol Biomarkers. 2011 Apr;15(4):243-50. doi: 10.1089/gtmb.2010.0071. Epub 2011 Jan 22.

Ownership of uncertainty: healthcare professionals counseling and treating women from hereditary breast and ovarian cancer families who receive an inconclusive BRCA1/2 genetic test result.

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  • 1Department of Sociology and Anthropology, The College of New Jersey, Ewing, New Jersey 08628, USA.



The aim of this study was to understand more fully how healthcare professionals deal with the uncertainty intrinsic in counseling and treating women from hereditary breast/ovarian cancer families who receive inconclusive BRCA1/2 genetic test results (genetic tests that do not find a mutation to account for the family history).


We conducted a small, qualitative, exploratory study using open-ended semistructured interviews of 12 geneticists, genetic counselor/nurses, oncologists, gynecologists, and breast surgeons at a major UK cancer center. We asked questions about how these professionals dealt with the large amount of uncertainty raised by an inconclusive result, how they communicated the uncertainty involved, their feelings about presenting medical management options based on information fraught with uncertainty, the role of the media, differences in perspectives by specialty, and personal feelings about the uncertainty.


Based on themes generated by the data, we proposed the concept "ownership of uncertainty" (sole, shared, diffused, normalized, transferred) to explain how the professionals in this study dealt with this high degree of uncertainty. A shared ownership of uncertainty was the dominant model during the presentation of information given by the professionals as part of their consultation with their patients. However, the final decision for management was left primarily to the woman seeking advice, even though several of the professionals reported feeling uneasy about this.


The concept "ownership of uncertainty" helps advance the understanding of how the healthcare professionals deal with the uncertainty intrinsic to an inconclusive BRCA1/2 genetic test result within the current social context.

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