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Upper gastrointestinal symptoms, psychosocial co-morbidity and health care seeking in general practice: population based case control study

Linda E Bröker1, Gerard JB Hurenkamp1, Gerben ter Riet1, François G Schellevis23, Hans G Grundmeijer1 and Henk C van Weert1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of General Practice, Academic Medical Center, University of Amsterdam, PO Box 22700, 1100 DE Amsterdam, The Netherlands

2 Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research (NIVEL), PO Box 1568, 3500 BN Utrecht, The Netherlands

3 Department of General Practice/EMGO institute, VU University Medical Centre, Postbus 7057, 1007 MB Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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BMC Family Practice 2009, 10:63  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-10-63

Published: 9 September 2009



The pathophysiology of upper gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms is still poorly understood. Psychological symptoms were found to be more common in patients with functional gastrointestinal complaints, but it is debated whether they are primarily linked to GI symptoms or rather represent motivations for health-care seeking. Purpose of our study was to compare co-morbidity, in particular psychological and social problems, between patients with and without upper GI symptoms. In addition, we investigated whether the prevalence of psychological and social problems is part of a broader pattern of illness related health care use.


Population based case control study based on the second Dutch National Survey of general practice (conducted in 2001). Cases (adults visiting their primary care physician (PCP) with upper GI symptoms) and controls (individuals not having any of these complaints), matched for gender, age, PCP-practice and ethnicity were compared. Main outcome measures were contact frequency, prevalence of somatic as well as psychosocial diagnoses, prescription rate of (psycho)pharmacological agents, and referral rates. Data were analyzed using odds ratios, the Chi square test as well as multivariable logistic regression analysis.


Data from 13,389 patients with upper GI symptoms and 13,389 control patients were analyzed. Patients with upper GI symptoms visited their PCP twice as frequently as controls (8.6 vs 4.4 times/year). Patients with upper GI symptoms presented not only more psychological and social problems, but also more other health problems to their PCP (odds ratios (ORs) ranging from 1.37 to 3.45). Patients with upper GI symptoms more frequently used drugs of any ATC-class (ORs ranging from 1.39 to 2.90), including psychotropic agents. The observed differences were less pronounced when we adjusted for non-attending control patients. In multivariate regression analysis, contact frequency and not psychological or social co-morbidity was strongest associated with patients suffering from upper GI symptoms.


Patients with upper GI symptoms visit their PCP more frequently for problems of any organ system, including psychosocial problems. The relationship between upper GI symptoms and psychological problems is equivocal and may reflect increased health care demands in general.