Training specialists to write appropriate reply letters to general practitioners about patients with medically unexplained physical symptoms; A cluster-randomized trial

Patient Educ Couns. 2015 Oct;98(10):1229-35. doi: 10.1016/j.pec.2015.06.021. Epub 2015 Jul 2.


Objective: To evaluate effects of a communication training for specialists on the quality of their reply letters to general practitioners (GPs) about patients with medically unexplained physical symptoms (MUPS).

Methods: Before randomization, specialists included ≤3 MUPS patients in a multi-center cluster-randomized trial. In 14h of MUPS-specific communication training, 2.5h focused on reply letters. Letters were discussed with regard to reporting and answering GPs' referral questions and patients' questions, and to reporting findings, explaining MUPS with perpetuating factors and giving advice. After the training, all doctors again included ≤3 MUPS patients. Reply letters to GPs were assessed for quality and blindly rated on a digital scale.

Results: We recruited 478 MUPS patients and 123 specialists; 80% of the doctors wrote ≥1 reply letters, 285 letters were assessed. Trained doctors reported (61% versus 37%, OR=2.55, F(1281)=6.60, p(group*time)=.01) and answered (63% versus 33%, OR=3.31, F(1281)=5.36, p(group*time)=.02) patients' questions more frequently than untrained doctors.

Conclusion: Training improves reply letters with regard to patients' questions, but not with regard to the following: GPs' referral questions, somatic findings, additional testing, explaining, and advice.

Practice implications: Training specialists to write appropriate reply letters needs more focus on explanation and advice.

Keywords: Cluster-randomized trial; Doctor-patient communication; Medical specialist; Medically unexplained physical symptoms; Patient-centered care; Physician-patient relationship; Post-graduate medical education; general practice; reply letter.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Communication
  • Continuity of Patient Care
  • Correspondence as Topic*
  • Education, Medical, Continuing / methods*
  • Female
  • General Practitioners / education*
  • General Practitioners / psychology
  • Humans
  • Interprofessional Relations
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology
  • Somatoform Disorders / therapy
  • Writing*