Negotiating explanations: doctor–patient communication with patients with medically unexplained symptoms—a qualitative analysis

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Abstract

Background.

Patients with medically unexplained physical symptoms (MUPS) seek explanations for their symptoms, but often find general practitioners (GPs) unable to deliver these. Different methods of explaining MUPS have been proposed. Little is known about how communication evolves around these explanations.

Objective.

To examine the dialogue between GPs and patients related to explanations in a community-based clinic for MUPS. We categorized dialogue types and dialogue outcomes.

Methods.

Patients were ≥18 years with inclusion criteria for moderate MUPS: ≥2 referrals to specialists, ≥1 functional syndrome/symptoms, ≥10 on the Patient Health Questionnaire-15 and GP’s judgement that symptoms were unexplained. We analysed transcripts of 112 audio-recorded consultations (39 patients and 5 GPs) from two studies on the Symptoms Clinic Intervention, a consultation intervention for MUPS in primary care. We used constant comparative analysis to code and classify dialogue types and outcomes.

Results.

We extracted 115 explanation sequences. We identified four dialogue types, differing in the extent to which the GP or patient controlled the dialogue. We categorized eight outcomes of the sequences, ranging from acceptance to rejection by the patient. The most common outcome was holding (conversation suspended in an unresolved state), followed by acceptance. Few explanations were rejected by the patient. Co-created explanations by patient and GP were most likely to be accepted.

Conclusion.

We developed a classification of dialogue types and outcomes in relation to explanations offered by GPs for MUPS patients. While it requires further validation, it provides a framework, which can be used for teaching, evaluation of practice and research.

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