Unexplained symptoms in primary care: perspectives of doctors and patients.
This study evaluated unexplained symptoms in primary care from the perspective of both patients and physicians. The data were obtained from two 1998 statewide surveys, one targeting Medicaid patients and the other all primary care physicians in the state. There were 439 patients who responded (45% response rate) and 280 primary care physicians who responded (33% response rate). Half of the patients and half of the physicians were in non-metropolitan counties. Half of the patients reported unexplained symptom usually or always, and 75% of whom sought help for these symptoms. Fifty-two percent of these patients believed their physician was very concerned about their unexplained symptoms. Eighty percent of them rated their physician as providing the best possible care compared to only 49% of patients whose physician did not care about their unexplained symptoms (P=.001). Among the physicians, only 14% reported very good or excellent satisfaction with managing unexplained symptoms as compared to 44% who claimed similar satisfaction in managing psychological problems. Physicians who saw themselves as more effective in dealing with somatoform symptoms were more likely to be in solo practice (P<.005), or in the same location for at least five years (P=.04). Residence in a nonmetropolitan county did not affect patient reporting of symptoms, patient perception of physician concern about symptoms, or physician satisfaction in managing these symptoms. These results indicate the prevalence and importance of unexplained symptoms in the Medicaid population and the comfort of physicians in managing these symptoms. There is an unmet need among primary care physicians to learn how to manage patients with unexplained symptoms.