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Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health Blog



Sharing ideas and experiences – workshop at WONCA Europe May 2018

By Nathan Davies, on 9 August 2018

In this post Marta Buszewicz discusses her recent trip to the WONCA European conference and her workshop on medically unexplained symptoms. 

It’s conference season and this is another blog about the benefits of travelling abroad to meet with colleagues. At the end of May I attended the WONCA Europe conference in Krakow, Poland. This had over 1,000 delegates, including from several non-European countries, as well as many European ones. The largest number of delegates came from Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, with rather fewer from the UK.

I gave an oral presentation about our recent qualitative study exploring the distress and mental health difficulties experienced by a sample of English GPs and the barriers to getting effective support, which was well received. I also ran a workshop on the topic of ‘Encouraging clinicians to work effectively with people with medically unexplained symptoms’ which is the main topic for this blog.

I was concerned that this workshop might not be very well attended as it was placed late in the conference programme and there were many parallel sessions and workshops in each time slot. However, 20 clinicians attended from 8 different countries – (Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Indonesia, Israel, Moldova, Portugal and the UK) – which I was very impressed by, as well as the ability of most of those present to discuss complicated issues in English, despite it not being their first or sometimes even their second language.

I presented some background information about the high prevalence of medically unexplained / functional symptoms in primary care and a summary of findings from three qualitative studies conducted by members of PCPH – Mary Howman, Alex Warner and Katie Yon – exploring the attitudes of GP registrars, hospital clinicians and Foundation year doctors to working with such patients.

We then had time for a discussion about how to address the management of such patients, as well as the question of clinician attitudes. This is clearly a common issue internationally and no-one at the workshop had any difficulty identifying such presentations in the patients they see as GPs and quite often found them challenging. However, the discussion also brought up some interesting observations and perspectives from different countries.

Ideas I particularly took away included a clear wish from all those attending that this topic should be introduced from the beginning of the medical school curriculum, with the possibility of non-organic causes for patients’ symptoms and dealing with uncertainty being revisited throughout students’ training.

There was also an interesting discussion about working more effectively across the primary-secondary care interface, which is something which may be particularly relevant with such patients. There were clear differences in how easy it was to make good links with hospital specialists to enable discussions about individual patients – this seemed more likely in smaller less densely populated countries like Finland or Estonia. Several participants suggested that primary care clinicians probably had a better understanding of how to work with patients with unexplained symptoms and that there might be a role for them in educating the hospital clinicians! The importance of family history and past experiences of illness in taking a history from such patients was also emphasised and I’m not sure how often this is done.

I found discussing these issues with colleagues from different countries and health care systems very stimulating and thought-provoking and would strongly encourage junior researchers to present their work at international conferences where possible in order to get some new perspectives.

Krakow is a very beautiful city with a renowned mediaeval marketplace, a castle complex and cathedral on the banks of the river Vistula. The new state of the art conference centre is on the other side of the river and only 10 minutes walk from the castle and the beginning of the old town, so it was possible to include some cultural visits in my time there.

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