Background: Five percent of the Swiss population attribute symptoms to electromagnetic fields (EMF). General practitioners (GPs) might play a key role in recognising an emerging health risk, since they are the first to observe and follow up persons who attribute symptoms to EMF. It is unclear to what extent EMFs have become an issue in general practice and which experiences GPs report from the consultations.
Methods: We conducted telephone interviews in a random sample of GPs in Switzerland in order to assess the frequency of consultations in primary care due to EMF and the GPs' experience with these patients.
Results: 342 general practitioners were interviewed, corresponding to a response rate of 28.2%. 69% of the GPs reported at least one consultation due to EMF, but GPs with a certificate in complementary medicine were much more likely to report EMF consultations. The median of EMF consultation numbers within one year was three. An overview of the most recent EMF-related consultation per GP yielded sleep disorders, headaches and fatigue as the most often reported symptoms and mobile phone base stations, power lines and the own use of mobile phones as the main EMF sources suspected to be associated to symptoms. GPs judged the association between EMF and the symptoms to be plausible in 54% of the cases. There was no combination of symptoms and EMF sources that was remarkably and consistently judged to be a plausible cause of the symptoms.
Conclusion: In our survey, GPs often judged the association between the health problems and the suspected exposure to be plausible. This plausibility assessment seems to be based on grounds of preventive positions in a situation of scientific uncertainty. More research effort is needed to obtain more insight on a potential association between long term EMF exposure and unspecific symptoms.