Explanation and relations. How do general practitioners deal with patients with persistent medically unexplained symptoms: a focus group study

BMC Fam Pract. 2009 Sep 24;10:68. doi: 10.1186/1471-2296-10-68.


Background: Persistent presentation of medically unexplained symptoms (MUS) is troublesome for general practitioners (GPs) and causes pressure on the doctor-patient relationship. As a consequence, GPs face the problem of establishing an ongoing, preferably effective relationship with these patients. This study aims at exploring GPs' perceptions about explaining MUS to patients and about how relationships with these patients evolve over time in daily practice.

Methods: A qualitative approach, interviewing a purposive sample of twenty-two Dutch GPs within five focus groups. Data were analyzed according to the principles of constant comparative analysis.

Results: GPs recognise the importance of an adequate explanation of the diagnosis of MUS but often feel incapable of being able to explain it clearly to their patients. GPs therefore indicate that they try to reassure patients in non-specific ways, for example by telling patients that there is no disease, by using metaphors and by normalizing the symptoms. When patients keep returning with MUS, GPs report the importance of maintaining the doctor-patient relationship. GPs describe three different models to do this; mutual alliance characterized by ritual care (e.g. regular physical examination, regular doctor visits) with approval of the patient and the doctor, ambivalent alliance characterized by ritual care without approval of the doctor and non-alliance characterized by cutting off all reasons for encounter in which symptoms are not of somatic origin.

Conclusion: GPs feel difficulties in explaining the symptoms. GPs report that, when patients keep presenting with MUS, they focus on maintaining the doctor-patient relationship by using ritual care. In this care they meticulously balance between maintaining a good doctor-patient relationship and the prevention of unintended consequences of unnecessary interventions.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Communication*
  • Family Practice / methods*
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Psychological
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / psychology
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians, Family / psychology*
  • Physicians, Family / statistics & numerical data
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Somatoform Disorders / diagnosis
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology*
  • Somatoform Disorders / therapy