Engaging patients with "medically unexplained symptoms" in psychological therapy: an integrative and transdiagnostic approach

Balabanovic, Janet and Hayton, Philip (2019) Engaging patients with "medically unexplained symptoms" in psychological therapy: an integrative and transdiagnostic approach. Psychology and psychotherapy, 93 (2). pp. 347-366. ISSN 2044-8341


Patients with "medically unexplained symptoms" or "MUS" experience subjectively compelling and distressing somatic symptoms that are not fully explained by underlying physical pathology. Effective treatment of these patients has been impeded by multiple barriers. Problems with patient engagement have been highlighted in the clinical and research literature, yet few exploratory studies have been conducted in this area. This research explores how experienced psychological therapists in a specialist MUS service work to engage these patients.

An in-depth qualitative study was conducted to explore the process of engaging patients with MUS in psychological therapy.

Semi-structured depth interviews were conducted with psychological therapists who work with complex patients with MUS. The therapists interviewed were recruited from an NHS primary care psychological therapy service that specializes in working with this patient group. Data were analysed using grounded theory to develop a model of this process.

The analysis identified how multiple interacting layers of systemic, interpersonal, and intrapsychic disconnections impede engagement. The research introduces a new theoretical framework 'Negotiating disconnection' that conceptualizes the process of engagement in terms of a series of stages, namely 'Drawing in' (negotiating systemic disconnection), 'Meeting' (connecting in the disconnection), and 'Nudging Forward' (cultivating new connections), and illustrates how these are negotiated by therapists.

The model shows that it is critical for therapists to collaborate closely with GPs to engage these patients while also highlighting barriers to doing this, reflecting the complexities of organizational and cultural change. Clinically, the model illustrates the importance of adopting a flexible, pluralistic, and integrative approach that is person-centred and process-led. Doctors and therapists should embrace a holistic, biopsychosocial stance towards MUS and be sensitively attuned to its complex phenomenology. To engage patients with MUS psychological therapists should be person-centred and process-led rather than theory- or protocol-led. A pluralistic and integrative mindset facilitates this by enhancing clinicians' flexibility. A multidisciplinary approach is essential. Clinicians should embrace a biopsychosocial stance towards MUS and work closely with medical colleagues to help them do the same. Structural and cultural change is needed to tackle this issue effectively.

Balabanovic-and-Hayton_FINAL.pdf - Accepted Version

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