To understand how physicians communicate may contribute to the mistrust and poor clinical outcomes observed in patients who present with medically unexplained symptoms
After providing informed consent, 100 primary care physicians in greater Rochester, New York, were visited by two unannounced covert standardized patients
(actors, or SPs) portraying two chest pain roles: classic symptoms
of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) with nausea and insomnia (the GERD role) and poorly characterized chest pain with fatigue and dizziness (the MUS role). The visits were surreptitiously audiorecorded and analyzed using the Measure of Patient-Centered Communication
(MPCC), which scores physicians on their exploration of the patients’ experience of illness (component 1) and psychosocial context (component 2), and their attempts to find common ground on diagnosis and treatment (component 3).
In multivariate analyses, MUS visits yielded significantly lower scores on MPCC component 1 (p
= .01). Subanalysis of component 1 scores showed that patients’ symptoms
were not explored as fully and that validation was less likely to be used in response to patient concerns in the MUS than in the GERD visits. Component 2 and component 3 were unchanged.
Physicians’ inquiry into and validation of symptoms
in patients with MUS was less common compared with more medically straightforward patient presentations. Further research should study the relationship between communication
variables and poor clinical outcomes, misunderstandings, mutual distrust, and inappropriate healthcare utilization in this population, and test interventions to address this problem.
GERD = gastrointestinal reflux disease; MPCC = Measure of Patient-Centered Communication; MUS = medically unexplained symptoms; PCC = patient-centered communication.