Background: Patients with medically unexplained symptoms (MUS) are often distressed, disabled and dissatisfied with the care they receive. Illness beliefs held by patients have a major influence on the decision to consult, persistence of symptoms and the degree of disability. Illness perception models consist of frameworks to organise information from multiple sources into distinct but interrelated dimensions: identity (the illness label), cause, consequences, emotional representations perceived control and timeline. Our aim was to elicit the illness perceptions of patients with MUS in Sri Lankan primary care to modify and improve a CBT intervention.
Method: An intervention study was conducted in a hospital primary care clinic in Colombo, Sri Lanka using CBT for MUS. As a part of the baseline assessment, qualitative data was collected using; the Short Explanatory Model Interview (SEMI), from 68 patients (16-65 years) with MUS. We categorised the qualitative data in to key components of the illness perception model, to refine CBT intervention for a subsequent larger trial study.
Results: The cohort was chronically ill and 87% of the patients were ill for more than six months (range six months to 20 years) with 5 or more symptoms and 6 or more visits over preceding six months. A majority were unable to offer an explanation on identity (59%) or the cause (56%), but in the consequence domain 95% expressed significant illness worries; 37% believed their symptoms indicated moderately serious illness and 58% very serious illness. Reflecting emotional representation, 33% reported fear of death, 20% fear of paralysis, 13% fear of developing cancer and the rest unspecified incurable illness. Consequence and emotional domains were significant determinants of distress and consultations. Their repeated visits were to seek help to alleviate symptoms. Only a minority expected investigations (8.8 %) or diagnosis (8.8%). However, the doctors who had previously treated them allegedly concentrated more on identity than cause. The above information was used to develop simple techniques incorporating analogies to alter their perceptions
Conclusion: The illness perception model is useful in understanding the continued distress of patients with persistent symptoms without an underlying organic cause. Hence it can make a significant contribution when developing and evaluating culturally sensitive patient friendly interventions.