Provider Recommendations in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty: An Analysis of Audio-Recorded Discussions about Vitamin D

Derjung M. Tarn, Debora A. Paterniti, Neil S. Wenger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND: Little is known about how providers communicate recommendations when scientific uncertainty exists. OBJECTIVES: To compare provider recommendations to those in the scientific literature, with a focus on whether uncertainty was communicated. DESIGN: Qualitative (inductive systematic content analysis) and quantitative analysis of previously collected audio-recorded provider–patient office visits. PARTICIPANTS: Sixty-one providers and a socio-economically diverse convenience sample of 603 of their patients from outpatient community- and academic-based primary care, integrative medicine, and complementary and alternative medicine provider offices in Southern California. MAIN MEASURES: Comparison of provider information-giving about vitamin D to professional guidelines and scientific information for which conflicting recommendations or insufficient scientific evidence exists; certainty with which information was conveyed. RESULTS: Ninety-two (15.3 %) of 603 visit discussions touched upon issues related to vitamin D testing, management and benefits. Vitamin D deficiency screening was discussed with 23 (25 %) patients, the definition of vitamin D deficiency with 21 (22.8 %), the optimal range for vitamin D levels with 26 (28.3 %), vitamin D supplementation dosing with 50 (54.3 %), and benefits of supplementation with 46 (50 %). For each of the professional guidelines/scientific information examined, providers conveyed information that deviated from professional guidelines and the existing scientific evidence. Of 166 statements made about vitamin D in this study, providers conveyed 160 (96.4 %) with certainty, without mention of any equivocal or contradictory evidence in the scientific literature. No uncertainty was mentioned when vitamin D dosing was discussed, even when recommended dosing was higher than guideline recommendations. CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: Providers convey the vast majority of information and recommendations about vitamin D with certainty, even though the scientific literature contains inconsistent recommendations and declarations of inadequate evidence. Not communicating uncertainty blurs the contrast between evidence-based recommendations and those without evidence. Providers should explore best practices for involving patients in decision-making by acknowledging the uncertainty behind their recommendations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)909-917
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of General Internal Medicine
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016


  • complementary and alternative medicine
  • dietary supplements
  • provider–patient relations
  • qualitative research methods
  • scientific uncertainty
  • vitamin D

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine


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