Making sense of medically unexplained symptoms in general practice: a grounded theory study

Ment Health Fam Med. 2013 Jun;10(2):101-11.


Background General practitioners often encounter patients with medically unexplained symptoms. These patients share many common features, but there is little agreement about the best diagnostic framework for describing them. Aims This study aimed to explore how GPs make sense of medically unexplained symptoms. Design Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 24 GPs. Each participant was asked to describe a patient with medically unexplained symptoms and discuss their assessment and management. Setting The study was conducted among GPs from teaching practices across Australia. Methods Participants were selected by purposive sampling and all interviews were transcribed. Iterative analysis was undertaken using constructivist grounded theory methodology. Results GPs used a variety of frameworks to understand and manage patients with medically unexplained symptoms. They used different frameworks to reason, to help patients make sense of their suffering, and to communicate with other health professionals. GPs tried to avoid using stigmatising labels such as 'borderline personality disorder', which were seen to apply a 'layer of dismissal' to patients. They worried about missing serious physical disease, but managed the risk by deliberately attending to physical cues during some consultations, and focusing on coping with medically unexplained symptoms in others. They also used referrals to exclude serious disease, but were wary of triggering a harmful cycle of uncoordinated care. Conclusion GPs were aware of the ethical relevance of psychiatric diagnoses, and attempted to protect their patients from stigma. They crafted helpful explanatory narratives for patients that shaped their experience of suffering. Disease surveillance remained an important role for GPs who were managing medically unexplained symptoms.

Keywords: diagnosis; general practice; mental health; somatoform disorders; uncertainty.