In general practice patients generally present with undifferentiated conditions. People come for help with a cough and not ‘pneumonia’, back pain and not ‘metastatic prostatic cancer’, fatigue and ‘not diabetes’. In a study published in 2015 it was reported that a diagnosis is not established in 36% of patients with health problems. According to the research team half of the symptoms were expected to resolve or persist as ‘medically unexplained’. In their summary the team concludes that:
The study highlights the need for a professional and scientific approach to symptoms as a phenomenon in its own right. Rosendal et al
We also know that the commonest symptoms relate to the musculoskeletal system, respiratory system and the digestive tract. As long ago as 1984 Gordon Waddell and colleagues made a similar point in the BMJ :
The amount of treatment received by 380 patients with backache was found to have been influenced more by their distress and illness behaviour than by the actual physical disease. Patients showing a large amount of inappropriate illness behaviour had received significantly more treatment (p <0 001).
We know that a standard medical history and examination provide a wealth of information not only about the disease from which the patient is suffering but also about how that particular person is reacting to and coping with his or her illness. What is necessary now is to devote as much time and effort to the study and understanding of illness behaviour as we do at present to the investigation of physical disease. Only thus can we put the art of medicine on to a sound scientific basis.
Decades later these words are prophetic and we find that the thrust of research is on the diagnosis and treatment of specific pathology rather than on how to help people to cope with persistent back pain, acute cough or ill defined abdominal pain. This continues to be a bone of contention between doctors and patients as was illustrated in a classic paper by Joe Kai writing about the management of illness in preschool children in general practice:
Parents expressed a need for more information about children’s illness. Advice about the management of common symptoms was insufficient. They sought explanation and detail that was specific and practical to help them make decisions about the likely cause of an illness, how to assess severity, and when to seek professional advice. They wanted to know of any implications of the illness or its treatment and the potential for prevention in the future. Most thought that being more informed would reduce rather than increase their anxiety.
In a literature review published in 2002 in the BJGP Hay and Wilson charted the progress of children under 4 who develop an acute cough:
At one week, 75% of children may have improved but 50% may be still coughing and/or have a nasal discharge. At two weeks up to 24% of children may be no better. Within two weeks of presentation, 12% of children may experience one or more complication, such as rash, painful ears, diarrhoea, vomiting, or progression to bronchitis/pneumonia.
The authors conclude that:
Illness duration may be longer and complications higher than many parents and clinicians expect. This may help to set more realistic expectations of the illness and help parents to decide when and if to reconsult.
By implication, as well as knowing when and how to investigate symptoms, it would help patients if doctors also routinely communicated the natural history of the commonest symptoms including and especially:
- Acute cough
- Acute low back pain
- Sprain /strain
For example it has been demonstrated that the experience of individual doctors on this issue is unreliable. Writing on acute low back pain researchers from New Zealand suggests that 91% of patients stop consulting their doctor at 3 months after the pain starts and long before their symptoms have resolved. Also that only 1:5 patients are free of pain or disability one year after an acute episode of low back pain.
Picture by Tina Franklin