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Almost all doctors encounter difficulties in managing some patients. Previous studies have examined the characteristics of such patients: we have additionally studied the reasons why hospital doctors find these patients 'difficult to help'. Three clinics (two medical and one surgical) were studied. The consultants rated 60 (22%) of 293 attenders s severely or extremely difficult to help. Difficulty was associated with greater patient distress (odds ratio 3.9; 95% CI 2.0-7.7), less patient satisfaction (2.6; 1.3-5.0) and chronic attendance (5.0; 1.4-17.3). An interview study of 40 'difficult' patients indicated that doctors considered psycho-social factors more important in difficult patients (3.2; 1.3-7.7). Objective differences between the doctor's and the patient's aims for care also occurred more frequently for difficult patients (2.8; 1.1-7.2). Three common types of difficulty were identified; medically unexplained symptoms; co-existing social problems; and severe untreatable illness. A review of the management aims for patients whom doctors find 'difficult to help', combined with improved access to psycho-social care, could improve both the quality and the cost-effectiveness of hospital out-patient services.


Journal article


Q J Med

Publication Date





187 - 193


Adolescent, Adult, Aged, Aged, 80 and over, Ambulatory Care, Attitude of Health Personnel, Attitude to Health, Consultants, Decision Making, Dermatology, England, Female, Humans, Male, Medical Staff, Hospital, Middle Aged, Odds Ratio, Orthopedics, Patient Satisfaction, Patients, Perception, Physician-Patient Relations, Pulmonary Medicine