Patients who strive to be ill: factitious disorder with physical symptoms

Am J Psychiatry. 2003 Jun;160(6):1163-8. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.160.6.1163.


Objective: Factitious disorder with physical symptoms characterizes patients who strive to appear medically ill and assume the sick role. Clinical suspicion is highest for female health care workers in the fourth decade of life. This study was designed to analyze the diagnosis of factitious disorder, the demographics of affected patients, and intervention and treatment.

Method: Retrospective examination was of 93 patients diagnosed during 21 years. Two raters agreed on subject eligibility on the basis of DSM-IV criteria and absence of a somatoform disorder and a plausible medical explanation.

Results: The group included 67 women (72.0%); mean age was 30.7 years (SD=8.0) for women and 40.0 years (SD=13.3) for men. Mean age at onset was 25.0 years (SD=7.4). Health care training or jobs were more common for women (65.7%) than men (11.5%). Most often, inexplicable laboratory results established the diagnosis. Eighty had psychiatric consultations; 71 were confronted about their role in the illness. Only 16 acknowledged factitious behavior. Follow-up data were available for only 28 patients (30.1%); maximum duration of follow-up was 156 months. Two patients were known to have died. Few patients pursued psychiatric treatment. Eighteen left the hospital against medical advice.

Conclusions: Factitious disorder affects men and women with different demographic profiles. Diagnosis must be based on careful examination of behavior, motivation, and medical history and not on a stereotype. Laboratory data and outside medical records help identify suspicious circumstances and inconsistencies. Confrontation does not appear to lead to patient acknowledgment and should not be considered necessary for management.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Factitious Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Factitious Disorders / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Health Occupations / statistics & numerical data
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medical Records / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Medical Records / statistics & numerical data
  • Minnesota / epidemiology
  • Psychiatry
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sex Factors
  • Sick Role
  • Somatoform Disorders / diagnosis