This panel explores the dialectical relationship between uncertainty and trust in clinical and other therapeutic encounters, in the context of the rapid global spread of diverse healing techniques, medicines and information.
Uncertainty is at the very heart of illness and therapeutic encounters, where diagnosis and treatment necessarily entail judgments about implications of acting or not acting in particular ways. It has been argued that the need to cope with uncertainty will increase as medical knowledge expands (Gordon et al, 2000). Moreover, the rapid global spread of biomedical techniques and medicines, which interact with multiple other healing traditions and systems, serves to increase the number of possibilities, but also the dimensions of uncertainty and complexity in the process of treatment-seeking. These include questions about efficacy of particular medicines and techniques, potential risks and side effects, the difficulties of identifying counterfeits, and the possible dangers of pursuing multiple forms of treatment concurrently. In this context, trust emerges as being an increasingly important dimension of health-seeking practices: trust in health professionals or other healers; trust in medicines and different therapeutic processes or artefacts; trust in the wide array of information sources (media advertisements, health promotion campaigns, web-based chat-rooms, etc.) which are themselves becoming increasingly dispersed with the rapid spread of information and communications technology. The dialectical interaction between uncertainty and trust, which shapes therapeutic processes and outcomes, is thus a crucial area of study for medical anthropology.