Training general practitioners in the treatment of functional somatic symptoms: effects on patient health in a cluster-randomised controlled trial (the Functional Illness in Primary Care study)

Tomas Toft, Marianne Rosendal, Eva Ørnbøl, Frede Olesen, Lisbeth Frostholm, Per Fink
Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 2010, 79 (4): 227-37

BACKGROUND: Patients with medically unexplained or functional somatic symptoms (FSS) are prevalent in primary care. In this pragmatic cluster-randomised controlled trial we aimed to test the effect of a training programme (The Extended Reattribution and Management model) for general practitioners (GPs) in the treatment of FSS.

METHODS: 38 participating GPs were randomised to the control group or the training group. The GPs included consecutive 18- to 65-year-old patients presenting during a 3-week period for new health complaints. We assessed a stratified subsample with the psychiatric interview Schedules of Clinical Assessment in Neuropsychiatry. Of 701 patients interviewed, 350 fulfilled the diagnostic criteria for any ICD-10 somatoform disorder (SD) and 111 presented FSS without fulfilling these criteria (sub-threshold SD). Patients completed questionnaires at baseline and after 3, 12 and 24 months. The questionnaires included assessment of health status (36-item Medical Outcomes Study Short Form; SF-36), health anxiety (Whiteley-7) and physical symptoms (Symptom Check List-90, somatization subscale).

RESULTS: Patients with SD consulting trained GPs improved more on our primary outcome of physical functioning than patients consulting control GPs at the 3-month follow-up (p = 0.004), but the improvement was not statistically significant at later follow-up. We found no significant differences in improvement between patients with SD and those with sub-threshold SD. Results for other SF-36 subscales, physical symptoms and health anxiety only showed statistically significant differences between the intervention and control groups for patients with SD; patients consulting trained GPs had less improvement in vitality, health anxiety and physical symptoms at 24 months compared with the control group.

CONCLUSIONS: GP training may accelerate improvement in physical functioning for patients with SD. However, the effect is small and may not be clinically significant.

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