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The Potentially Somatizing Effect of Clinical Consultation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 November 2014


Many patients who present physical symptoms that their doctors cannot explain by physical disease have persisting symptoms and impairment. An influential view has been that such symptoms are the somatization of emotional distress, but there has also been concern that medical practice contributes to shaping these presentations. Analysis of patients' accounts indicate that they approach these consultations with a sense of being the expert on the nature and reality of their symptoms and, in primary care at least, they seek convincing explanations, engagement, and support.They often describe doctors as doubting that their symptoms are real and as not taking their symptoms seriously. Observational research has demonstrated that patients presenting idiopathic symptoms in primary care generally provide cues to their need for explanation or to psychosocial difficulties. Their doctors tend to provide simple reassurance rather than detailed explanations, and often disregard psychosocial cues. Patients seem to intensify their presentation in consequence, elaborating and extending their accounts of their symptoms, perhaps in the effort to engage their doctors and demonstrate the reality of their symptoms. When doctors propose physical investigation and treatment in response to such escalating presentation, they thereby inadvertently somatize patients' psychological presentation. Consultations, therefore, have elements of contest, whereby patients seek engagement from doctors who seek to disengage. Although provision of a medical label, such as a functional diagnosis, can legitimize patients' complaints and avoid contest, this is at the risk of indicating that medicine can take responsibility for managing the symptoms. More collaborative relationships rely on doctors recognizing patients' authority in knowing about their symptoms, and providing tangible explanations that make sense to the patient and allow them to tolerate or manage the symptoms. Researchers need to study how doctors can best achieve these aims within routine consultations.

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