A taxonomy of explanations in a general practitioner clinic for patients with persistent "medically unexplained" physical symptoms

LaKrista Morton, Alison Elliott, Jennifer Cleland, Vincent Deary, Christopher Burton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)
3 Downloads (Pure)


OBJECTIVE: To develop a taxonomy of explanations for patients with persistent physical symptoms.

METHODS: We analysed doctors' explanations from two studies of a moderately-intensive consultation intervention for patients with multiple, often "medically-unexplained," physical symptoms. We used a constant comparative method to develop a taxonomy which was then applied to all verbatim explanations.

RESULTS: We analysed 138 explanations provided by five general practitioners to 38 patients. The taxonomy comprised explanation types and explanation components. Three explanation types described the overall structure of the explanations: Rational Adaptive, Automatic Adaptive, and Complex. These differed in terms of who or what was given agency within the explanation. Three explanation components described the content of the explanation: Facts - generic statements about normal or dysfunctional processes; Causes - person-specific statements about proximal or distal causes for symptoms; Mechanisms - processes by which symptoms arise or persist in the individual. Most explanations conformed to one type and contained several components.

CONCLUSIONS: This novel taxonomy for classifying clinical explanations permits detailed classification of explanation types and content. Explanation types appear to carry different implications of agency.

PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS: The taxonomy is suitable for examining explanations and developing prototype explanatory scripts in both training and research settings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)224-230
Number of pages7
JournalPatient Education and Counseling
Issue number2
Early online date17 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Medically unexplained symptoms
  • Somatoform disorders
  • Explanation
  • Reassurance
  • Primary care


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