Objective: To determine the attributes of the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in general practice as perceived by the doctors.
Subjects and methods: We administered a 93-item questionnaire about the terminology, diagnosis and treatment of the irritable bowel to 43 of 55 randomly selected general practitioners (28 men, 15 women).
Results: General practitioners were unfamiliar with the Manning criteria for the irritable bowel syndrome. Nevertheless, most of them diagnosed the irritable bowel with reasonable confidence and it is less troublesome to them than pelvic pain, headache or backache. Their main concern was excluding organic disease (63%) and 65% believed their patients shared this concern. Nevertheless, they ordered few tests and were often (72%) prepared to make the diagnosis on the initial visit. They estimated that they referred only 14% of IBS patients to specialists, in most cases (56%) because of an unsatisfied patient and in 35% because of an uncertain diagnosis. For treatment, most (77%) chose 'explanation and reassurance'. Virtually all employed drugs, usually several.
Conclusion: General practitioners say they diagnose the irritable bowel syndrome with less difficulty than other common, painful disorders, but it would be helpful to find out exactly how they do so. Their confidence could be increased by use of diagnostic criteria. Patients referred to specialists are likely to be a minority of hard-to-satisfy people. The optimal approach to such patients should be developed by general practitioners and specialists together. Specialists should strive to satisfy the patient and confirm the diagnosis in the few that are referred. Drug usuage in the irritable bowel syndrome is more than is justified and should, in our view, be minimized.