Why medically unexplained symptoms and health anxiety don’t need to make your heart sink

Jill M Newby and Gavin Andrews
Med J Aust 2017; 206 (11): . || doi: 10.5694/mja16.00580
Published online: 19 June 2017

Cognitive behaviour therapy is an effective strategy for overcoming the challenges of health anxiety

Patients with medically unexplained symptoms commonly present in primary care, accounting for up to a fifth of general practitioner consultations.1 Medically unexplained symptoms are defined as persistent and often debilitating symptoms for which a definitive medical cause cannot be identified after appropriate clinical examination and investigation.2 Due to the complex nature of their problems and a high use of health services, such patients represent a major challenge to the medical community.3 Understandably, in their quest to find an explanation and cure for their symptoms, they keep returning to their doctor in distress or crisis, sometimes with a diagnosis in mind, and other times frightened of having an unknown life-threatening medical condition that has gone undiagnosed. They often request referrals for specialist opinions, as well as repeated investigations that can increase the risk of false-positive results.4 Patients and doctors experience consultations as frustrating and difficult, and patients can be left feeling uncertain about how serious their symptoms might be, and lose trust in modern medicine.5

  • 1 School of Psychology, UNSW Sydney, Sydney, NSW
  • 2 Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression, UNSW Sydney, St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, NSW



Jill Newby is supported by an Australian National Health and Medical Research Council Early Career Research Fellowship (grant 1037787).

Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures.

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