, Volume 24, Issue 4, pp 450-456
Date: 23 Jan 2009

Primary Care Consultations About Medically Unexplained Symptoms: How Do Patients Indicate What They Want?

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Abstract

Background

Patients with medically unexplained physical symptoms (MUS) are often thought to deny psychological needs when they consult general practitioners (GPs) and to request somatic intervention instead. We tested predictions from the contrasting theory that they are transparent in communicating their psychological and other needs.

Objective

To test predictions that what patients tell GPs when they consult about MUS is related transparently to their desire for (1) emotional support, (2) symptom explanation and (3) somatic intervention.

Design

Prospective naturalistic study. Before consultation, patients indicated what they wanted from it using a self-report questionnaire measuring patients’ desire for: emotional support, explanation and reassurance, and physical investigation and treatment. Their speech during consultation was audio-recorded, transcribed and coded utterance-by-utterance. Multilevel regression analysis tested relationships between what patients sought and what they said.

Participants

Patients (N = 326) consulting 33 GPs about symptoms that the GPs designated as MUS.

Results

Patients who wanted emotional support spoke more about psychosocial problems, including psychosocial causes of symptoms and their need for psychosocial help. Patients who wanted explanation and reassurance suggested more physical explanations, including diseases, but did not overtly request explanation. Patients’ wish for somatic intervention was associated only with their talk about details of such interventions and not with their requests for them.

Conclusions

In general, patients with medically unexplained symptoms provide many cues to their desire for emotional support. They are more indirect or guarded in communicating their desire for explanation and somatic intervention.