Perceptions of provider’s epistemic authority in response to variant of uncertain significance-related recommendations

Sukh Makhnoon, Maureen Mork, Banu Arun, Robert J. Volk, Susan K. Peterson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Uncertain genetic information such as variants of uncertain significance (VUS) is often encountered by patients in clinical cancer genetic testing. Although healthcare providers facilitate patient's understanding of VUS-associated empirical risk and its medical implications, patients’ understanding and perceptions of risk often differ and may be based on subjective evaluations such as their perception of provider's epistemic authority (EA). This study examines the hypothesis that individuals attribute greater EA to genetic counselors (GCs) (compared to gastrointestinal oncologists) and to providers who recommend more active VUS-related recommendations (compared to inactive). In a factorial experiment, 652 adult participants recruited on Amazon Mechanical Turk were block-randomized to read one of 10 different types of VUS-related scenarios in the context of colon cancer (5 recommendation types × 2 provider types). GCs were attributed higher EA than gastrointestinal oncologists (p = <.001). Active recommendations (comprehensive, check back, wrong) were attributed lower EA (M = 3.67, SD = 0.79) compared to the inactive (stand by, disregard) (M = 3.89, SD = 0.67) (p-value = <.001). The wrong recommendation was attributed lowest EA compared to the four correct recommendations (mean difference = −0.34, −0.45, −0.35, and −0.44, respectively; p =.002), which, when dropped from the analysis, showed no difference between the correct active and inactive recommendations (3.78 vs. 3.89, p =.095). The higher EA attributed to GCs is encouraging and possibly explained by increased public awareness of the genetic counseling profession. The lack of difference in EA attributed to various correct, yet incomplete forms of VUS-related recommendation indicates that individuals may be unaware of and thus completely rely on providers for complex medical topics like VUS. Communicating VUS-related uncertainty warrants caution and further research to elucidate best practices and outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)513-521
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Genetic Counseling
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • epistemic authority
  • genetic counseling
  • variants of uncertain significance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics(clinical)


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