How General Practitioners Raise Psychosocial Concerns as a Potential Cause of Medically Unexplained Symptoms: A Conversation Analysis

Health Commun. 2022 May;37(6):696-707. doi: 10.1080/10410236.2020.1864888. Epub 2021 Jan 13.


A common explanation for medically unexplained symptoms (MUS) relates patients' psychosocial concerns to their physical ailments. The present study used conversation analysis to examine how general practitioners (GPs) ascribe psychosocial causes to patients' unexplained symptoms during medical consultations. Our data consisted of 36 recorded consultations from Dutch general practice. We found that GPs raise psychosocial concerns as a potential cause of MUS in 14 consultations, either captured in 1) history-taking questions, or 2) diagnostic explanations. Whereas questions invited patient ideas, explanations did not make relevant patient responses in adjacent turns and subordinated patients' knowledge in symptom experiences to the GP's medical expertise. By questioning patients whether their symptoms may have psychosocial causes GPs enabled symptom explanations to be constructed collaboratively. Furthermore, additional data exploration showed that GPs lay ground for psychosocial ascriptions by first introducing psychosocial concerns as a consequence rather than a cause of complaints. Such preliminary activities allowed GPs to initiate rather delicate psychosocial ascriptions later in the consultation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • General Practitioners*
  • Humans
  • Medically Unexplained Symptoms*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Referral and Consultation