A randomized controlled clinical trial of a psychosocial and communication intervention carried out by GPs for patients with medically unexplained symptoms

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Abstract

Background

Somatizing patients are a challenge to general practitioners (GPs). A cluster randomized controlled trial was conducted to asses the effect of specific communication techniques delivered by GPs on somatizing patients' self-perceived health.

Method

Thirty-nine GPs were assigned randomly to two parallel groups. GPs in the intervention group treated somatic patients according to specific communication techniques focused on offering a physical explanation - release of hormones - and approaching sensitive topics in the patient's experience indirectly. Control GPs used the standard Goldberg reattribution technique. A total of 156 patients, aged 18–65 years, were selected randomly from a list of 468 patients with six or more active symptoms for women and four or more for men. All patients had six programmed 30-min consultations. Health-related quality of life (assessed with the 36-item Short-Form Health Survey, SF-36) and a summary utility index were used as outcome measures. Patients were interviewed at home at baseline and at 3, 8 and 12 months after the beginning of the intervention.

Results

Patients in both groups improved in all dimensions of the SF-36. The time course of the quality of life was significantly better for the intervention group in five of the eight scales of the SF-36 (bodily pain, mental health, physical functioning, vitality, and social functioning) and in the utility index (p < 0·039).

Conclusions

Communication techniques were found to have a clinically relevant impact on body pain. This finding, together with a trend towards better scores in the remaining scales, justifies the use of these techniques in psychosocial interventions delivered to patients with medically unexplained symptoms.

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