Physicians' responses to patients' medically unexplained symptoms

Ronald M. Epstein, Cleveland G. Shields, Sean C. Meldrum, Kevin Fiscella, Jennifer Carroll, Patricia A. Carney, Paul R. Duberstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

94 Scopus citations


Objective: To understand how physicians communicate may contribute to the mistrust and poor clinical outcomes observed in patients who present with medically unexplained symptoms (MUS). Methods: 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). Results: 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. Conclusion: 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)269-276
Number of pages8
JournalPsychosomatic Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Communication
  • Patient-centered care
  • Physician-patient relations
  • Somatization
  • Standardized patients
  • Symptoms

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


Dive into the research topics of 'Physicians' responses to patients' medically unexplained symptoms'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this