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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

New perspectives on patient expectations of treatment outcomes: results from qualitative interviews with patients seeking complementary and alternative medicine treatments for chronic low back pain

Clarissa Hsu1*, Karen J Sherman1, Emery R Eaves2, Judith A Turner34, Daniel C Cherkin1, DeAnn Cromp1, Lisa Schafer1 and Cheryl Ritenbaugh2

Author Affiliations

1 Group Health Research Institute, Seattle, USA

2 University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

3 Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA, USA

4 Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA, USA

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BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2014, 14:276  doi:10.1186/1472-6882-14-276

Published: 30 July 2014

Abstract

Background

Positive patient expectations are often believed to be associated with greater benefits from complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments. However, clinical studies of CAM treatments for chronic pain have not consistently supported this assumption, possibly because of differences in definitions and measures of expectations. The goal of this qualitative paper is to provide new perspectives on the outcome expectations of patients prior to receiving CAM therapies for chronic low back pain.

Methods

We conducted semi-structured interviews with 64 individuals receiving massage, chiropractic, acupuncture or yoga for chronic low back pain. Interviews were recorded and transcribed. Transcripts were analyzed by a team of experienced qualitative researchers using an immersion/crystallization approach to coding and analysis.

Results

Overall, participants’ expectations of treatment outcomes tended to cluster in four key domains: pain relief, improved function (including an increase in ability to engage in meaningful activities), improved physical fitness, and improved overall well-being (including mental well-being). Typically, patients had modest expectations for outcomes from treatment. Furthermore, outcome expectations were complex on several levels. First, the concept of expectations overlapped with several related concepts; in particular, hopes. Participants sometimes used expectations and hopes interchangeably and at other times made clear distinctions between these two terms depending on context. A related finding was that participants were cautious about stating that they expected positive outcomes. Finally, participants articulated strong interrelationships among the four key domains and often discussed how changes in one domain might affect other domains.

Conclusions

Overall, these findings contribute to a growing body of literature exploring the role of expectations in patient outcomes. This paper provides important guidance that may help refine the way treatment expectations are studied in the future. In particular, participants’ statements indicate that standardized measures of patient expectations should include items that capture hesitancy to articulate overly optimistic outcomes as well as interrelationships among different outcomes.