Coping with worry while waiting for diagnostic results: a qualitative study of the experiences of pregnant couples following a high-risk prenatal screening result
BACKGROUND: It is well documented that pregnant women experience increased worry and uncertainty following a high-risk prenatal screening result. While waiting for diagnostic results this worry continues to linger. It has been suggested that high-risk women put the pregnancy mentally 'on hold' during this period, however, not enough is known about how high-risk women and their partners cope while waiting for diagnostic results. The aim of this study was to identify the strategies employed to cope with worry and uncertainty. METHODS: Qualitative, semi-structured interviews with 16 high-risk couples who underwent diagnostic testing. The couples were recruited at a university hospital fetal medicine unit in Denmark. Data were analysed using thematic analysis. RESULTS: All couples reported feeling worried and sad upon receiving a high-risk screening result. While waiting for diagnostic results, the couples focused on coming to their own understanding of the situation and employed both social withdrawal and social engagement as strategies to prevent worry from escalating. Additionally, couples used gratitude, reassuring reasoning and selective memory as means to maintain hopes for a good outcome. Discussions about what to do in case of an abnormal test result were notably absent in the accounts of waiting. This bracketing of the potential abnormal result allowed the couples to hold on to a 'normal' pregnancy and to employ an 'innocent-till-proven-guilty' approach to their worries about the fetus's health. None of the interviewed couples regretted having prenatal screening and all of them expected to have prenatal screening in a future pregnancy. CONCLUSIONS: The couples in this study did not put the pregnancy mentally 'on hold'. Worry and uncertainty must be understood as managed through a diverse range of practical and emotional strategies that change and overlap in the process of waiting. Clinicians may support appropriate ways of coping with worry and waiting through empathetic and empowering clinical communication. In addition to providing adequate information and presenting options available, clinicians may support high-risk women/couples by encouraging them to seek their own personal understandings and management strategies as a way to gain some control in an uncertain situation.