Reattribution reconsidered: narrative review and reflections on an educational intervention for medically unexplained symptoms in primary care settings

J Psychosom Res. 2011 Nov;71(5):325-34. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychores.2011.05.008. Epub 2011 Jun 28.


Objective: Medically unexplained symptoms (MUS) refer to bodily symptoms without a physical health explanation. In the context of MUS, reattribution is a process of attributing physical symptoms to a psychological cause. We review the use of a consultation model which employs reattribution, and which has been extensively utilised in teaching and research in primary care.

Methods: Literature search for studies utilising the reattribution model. Narrative review of the results.

Results: Data was extracted from 25 publications from 13 studies. The model has been modified over time and comparison between studies is limited by differences in methodology. The skills of the model can be acquired by training, which also improves practitioners' attitudes to MUS. However impact on clinical outcomes has been mixed and this can be explained in part from the findings of nested qualitative studies.

Conclusions: The reattribution model is too simplistic in its current form to address the needs of many people presenting with MUS in primary care. Reattribution of physical symptoms to psychological causes is often unnecessary. Further research is required into the effectiveness of stepped and collaborative care models in which education of primary care practitioners forms one part of a complex intervention. The consultation process is best seen as both a conversation and ongoing negotiation between doctor and patient in which there are no certainties about the presence or absence of organic pathology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Education, Medical, Continuing / methods
  • Family Practice / education*
  • Humans
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Somatoform Disorders / diagnosis
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology
  • Somatoform Disorders / therapy*