Primary Care Clinicians Treat Patients with Medically Unexplained Symptoms: A Randomized Controlled Trial


Address correspondence and requests for reprints to Dr. Smith, B312 Clinical Center, 138 Service Road, East Lansing, MI 48824 (e-mail:


OBJECTIVE: There is no proven primary care treatment for patients with medically unexplained symptoms (MUS). We hypothesized that a long-term, multidimensional intervention by primary care providers would improve MUS patients' mental health.

DESIGN: Clinical trial.

SETTING: HMO in Lansing, MI.

PARTICIPANTS: Patients from 18 to 65 years old with 2 consecutive years of high utilization were identified as having MUS by a reliable chart rating procedure; 206 subjects were randomized and 200 completed the study.

INTERVENTION: From May 2000 to January 2003, 4 primary care clinicians deployed a 12-month intervention consisting of cognitive–behavioral, pharmacological, and other treatment modalities. A behaviorally defined patient-centered method was used by clinicians to facilitate this treatment and the provider-patient relationship.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURE: The primary endpoint was an improvement from baseline to 12 months of 4 or more points on the Mental Component Summary of the SF-36.

RESULTS: Two hundred patients averaged 13.6 visits for the year preceding study. The average age was 47.7 years and 79.1% were females. Using intent to treat, 48 treatment and 34 control patients improved (odds ratio [OR]=1.92, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.08 to 3.40; P=.02). The relative benefit (relative “risk” for improving) was 1.47 (CI: 1.05 to 2.07), and the number needed to treat was 6.4 (95% CI: 0.89 to 11.89). The following baseline measures predicted improvement: severe mental dysfunction (P<.001), severe body pain (P=.039), nonsevere physical dysfunction (P=.003), and at least 16 years of education (P=.022); c-statistic=0.75.

CONCLUSION: The first multidimensional intervention by primary care clinicians led to clinically significant improvement in MUS patients.