Can Physician Attitudes Influence Symptoms?

by Kristin Thorson, Editor, Fibromyalgia Network
Posted: August 28, 2007

If you think your doctor is a real pain, you may be right. Fibromyalgia patients who believe their doctors are serious about treating their symptoms may improve both physically and psychologically, research shows.

A research team led by Robert Bennett, M.D., of the Oregon Health Sciences University, questioned 108 fibromyalgia patients on their perceptions of the attitudes of their past and current physicians. Bennett wanted to learn if a patient’s perception of how seriously their physician takes a diagnosis impacted the symptoms and severity of their disease.

The survey tools measured each patient’s symptom severity and how well patients felt their physicians understood their symptoms. The tools used also detected to what extent patients thought they could meet their physicians’ expectations when it came to managing and coping with their illness. Patients were asked to apply and rate statements regarding their past and current doctors on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For example:

  • Sometimes my physician doesn’t understand how seriously ill I am, and,
  • I feel hurt at times when my physician assumes that I can get better if I really wanted to.

Patients were then asked to evaluate how victimized they felt by their illness and rate how much control over their pain and fatigue they felt on a scale of 1 to 10. In the end, patients reported that their current physician took their illness much more seriously than past physicians. In addition, patients who believed their doctor took them seriously reported less fatigue and stiffness, woke up feeling more rested, had greater control over their pain, experienced less anxiety, and they felt better overall. This is a clear improvement over past physicians who perceived fibromyalgia as a serious illness because this caring attitude only led to reductions in anxiety, depression and victimization, but had no effect on the patient’s physical symptoms.

In contrast, patients who felt their doctor did not take their illness seriously reported higher levels of anxiety and none of the beneficial effects achieved by a caring doctor.

Summing up his project that was presented at the 2007 International MYOPAIN Society meeting in Washington, DC, Bennett writes: “Patients may improve both physically and psychologically under the care of a physician who takes their illness seriously, whereas a negative past attitude continues to adversely influence their psychological health.”

While this new research discussed above has not yet been published in medical journals, the researchers used the following references for their study:

Burckhardt CS, Clark SR, Bennett RM. J Rheumatology 18(5):728-34, 1991.

Hatchett L, Friend R, Symister P, Wadhwa N. J Pers Soc Psychol 73:560-73, 1997.

Bediako SM, Friend R. Ann Behav Med 28(3) 203-10, 2004.

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