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Open Access Research article

Sick-listed employees with severe medically unexplained physical symptoms: burden or routine for the occupational health physician? A cross sectional study

Rob Hoedeman12*, Boudien Krol1, Annette H Blankenstein3, Petra C Koopmans12 and Johan W Groothoff1

Author Affiliations

1 University Medical Center Groningen, Department of Health Sciences, University of Groningen, The Netherlands

2 ArboNed Occupational Health Services, Utrecht, The Netherlands

3 VU University Medical Center, Department of General Practice, EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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BMC Health Services Research 2010, 10:305  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-10-305

Published: 8 November 2010

Abstract

Background

The two primary objectives of this study were to the assess consultation load of occupational health physicians (OHPs), and their difficulties and needs with regard to their sickness certification tasks in sick-listed employees with severe medical unexplained physical symptoms (MUPS). Third objective was to determine which disease-, patient-, doctor- and practice-related factors are associated with the difficulties and needs of the OHPs.

Methods

In this cross-sectional study, 43 participating OHPs from 5 group practices assessed 489 sick-listed employees with and without severe MUPS. The OHPs filled in a questionnaire about difficulties concerning sickness certification tasks, consultation time, their needs with regard to consultation with or referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist, and communication with GPs. The OHPs also completed a questionnaire about their personal characteristics.

Results

OHPs only experienced task difficulties in employees with severe MUPS in relation to their communication with the treating physician. This only occured in cases in which the OHP attributed the physical symptoms to somatoform causes. If they attributed the physical symptoms to mental causes, the OHPs reported a need to consultate a psychiatrist about the diagnosis and treatment.

Conclusions

OHPs experience few difficulties with their sickness certification tasks and consultation load concerning employees with severe MUPS. However, they encounter problems if the diagnostic uncertainties of the treating physician interfere with the return to work process. OHPs have a need for psychiatric expertise whenever they are uncertain about the psychiatric causes of a delayed return to work process. We recommend further training programs for OHPs. They should also have more opportunity for consultation and referral to a psychiatrist, and their communication with treating physicians should be improved.