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Medically Unexplained Symptoms: Barriers to Effective Treatment When Nothing Is the Matter

Lipsitt, Don R. MA, MD; Joseph, Robert MS, MD; Meyer, Donald MD; Notman, Malkah T. MD

doi: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000055

Patients with symptoms that elude medical explanation are a perennial challenge to practicing physicians of all disciplines. Articles appear virtually monthly advising physicians how to care for them. Efforts at postgraduate education have attempted to ameliorate the situation but have shown limited or disappointing results at best. Physicians continue either to avoid these patients or to resort to a “seat-of-the-pants” approach to management. Literature on patients with medically unexplained symptoms, along with extensive experience consulting with primary care physicians, suggests that it is not primarily lack of physician skills but rather a series of barriers to adequate care that may account for suboptimal management. Barriers to implementation of effective care reside in the nature of medical education, the doctor-patient relationship, heterogeneity of symptoms and labels, changes in the health care system, and other variables. These impediments are considered here, with suggested potential remedies, in the conviction that the proper care of patients with medically unexplained symptoms can, among other things, bring satisfaction to both the patient and the physician, and help to reduce ineffective health resource utilization.

From Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance, Cambridge, MA.

Original manuscript received 27 February 2014; revised manuscript received 5 June 2014, accepted for publication subject to revision 8 July 2014; revised manuscript received 19 July 2014.

Correspondence: Don R. Lipsitt, MD, 83 Cambridge Pkwy., Cambridge, MA 02142. Email:

© 2015 President and Fellows of Harvard College
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