Background: Sociodemographic inequalities in the stage of diagnosis and cancer survival may be partly due to differences in the appraisal interval (time from noticing a bodily change to perceiving a reason to discuss symptoms with a health-care professional). A number of symptom appraisal models have been developed describing the psychological factors that underlie how people make sense of symptoms, although none explicitly focus on sociodemographic characteristics.
Methods: We therefore conducted a conceptual review synthesising all symptom appraisal models, and focus on potential links with sociodemographics that could be the focus of future research.
Results: Common psychological elements across nine symptom appraisal models included knowledge, attention, expectation and identity, all of which could be sensitive to sociodemographic factors. For example, lower socioeconomic status (SES), male sex and older age are associated with lower health literacy generally and lower cancer symptom knowledge. Limited attentional resources, lower expectations about health and lack of social support also hamper symptom interpretation, and would be likely to be more prevalent in those from lower SES backgrounds. Symptom heuristics ('rules of thumb') may lead to symptoms being normalised because they are common within the social network, potentially disadvantaging older populations.
Conclusions: A better understanding of the processes through which people interpret their symptoms, and the way these processes differ by sociodemographic factors, could help guide the development of interventions with the aim of reducing inequalities in cancer outcomes.