Medically unexplained symptoms and the problem of power in the primary care consultation: A qualitative study

Lindsey Wileman, Carl May, Carolyn A. Chew-Graham

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Background. Patients presenting in primary care frequently exhibit physical symptoms that may be unrelated to organic pathology. Such symptoms are commonly regarded as products of psychological or emotional problems, and their legitimacy as 'medical' matters is often called into question. Objectives. Our aim was to explore GPs' attitudes to the management of patients that present with medically unexplained symptoms in primary care. Methods. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 15 GPs in North-West England. Interviews were audio-taped and subsequently transcribed and analysed using a constant comparison technique. Results. Subjects conceptualized patients presenting with medically unexplained symptoms as the presentation of psychological distress. They presented problems of control and authority in the consultation, and difficulties in managing this had a negative impact on the doctor-patient relationship. Such consultations were frustrating for the GP and potentially harmful to the patient. Conclusion. Patients with medically unexplained symptoms were seen to be presenting with inappropriate symptoms that were a manifestation of emotional or social distress. GPs felt ill-equipped to deal with the presentations and the frustrations they felt and may need help in actively and productively managing these patients.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)178-182
    Number of pages4
    JournalFamily practice
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2002


    • Consultation
    • Medically unexplained symptoms
    • Primary care


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