The Association Between Intolerance of Ambiguity and Decline in Medical Students' Attitudes Toward the Underserved

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Abstract

Purpose

Little published research details the risk factors for the decline in students' attitudes toward underserved populations during medical school. The authors assessed the association between this attitude change and intolerance of ambiguity (the tendency to perceive novel or complex situations as sources of threat), since treating underserved populations often involves a high level of complexity.

Method

The University of New Mexico School of Medicine administered a survey assessing attitudes toward underserved populations at matriculation and at graduation to seven consecutive medical school classes (matriculation years 1999 to 2005). The university also administered a survey measuring tolerance of ambiguity at matriculation. Five hundred twenty-nine students were eligible to complete both surveys between 1999 and 2009.

Results

Three hundred thirteen (59%) students completed the attitude survey at matriculation and graduation. Attitude scores for a majority of students (69%) decreased from matriculation to graduation. Changes in scores ranged from +25 to −35; the average change was −4.5. Linear regression analysis showed that those who were tolerant of ambiguity (top 20% of tolerance of ambiguity scores) were significantly less likely to have declines in attitudes toward the underserved; the coefficient was 3.69 (P = .003). Other factors independently associated with maintaining high attitude scores were being female and starting medical school at age 24 or younger.

Conclusions

Attention to, and practice with, ambiguous situations may help moderate decreases in attitudes toward underserved populations. Medical education should address the fact that physicians face much ambiguity and should offer students tools to help them respond to ambiguous clinical situations.

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