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November 7, 1986

'I Don't Know'

Author Affiliations


JAMA. 1986;256(17):2348. doi:10.1001/jama.1986.03380170064019

"I don't know," our chief told the service patient. "I can't tell you for sure."

I was shaken and taken aback. As a third-year medical student, I had not heard such a frank admission before. Our elders had seemed omniscient; these words were foreign and unprecedented. Hearing them unnerved me because a medical student who said "I don't know" admitted ignorance or failure, even guilt. How could the chief say them so blithefully?

It used to be okay to say "I don't know." As freshmen newly arrived at medical school, we freely admitted our many uncertainties. The city was new to most of us, some of us had left economics or language undergraduate majors for medicine, and no one really knew what to expect. Not knowing was our first shared experience, and banding together before our uncertainties made us into a class. Not knowing was the mark of a freshman.