BACKGROUND: Assessment and management of symptoms is a main task in primary care. Symptoms may be defined as 'any subjective evidence of a health problem as perceived by the patient'. In other words, symptoms do not appear as such; symptoms are rather the result of an interpretation process. We aim to discuss different perspectives on symptom interpretation as presented in the disciplines of biomedicine, psychology and anthropology and the possible implications for our understanding of research on symptoms in relation to prevalence and diagnosis in the general population and in primary care.
DISCUSSION: Symptom experiences are embedded in a complex interplay between biological, psychological and cultural factors. From a biomedical perspective, symptoms are seen as possible indicators of disease and are characterized by parameters related to seriousness (e.g. appearance, severity, impact and temporal aspects). However, such symptom characteristics are rarely unambiguous, but merely indicate disease probability. In addition, the GP's interpretation of presenting symptoms will also be influenced by other factors. From a psychological perspective, factors affecting interpretation are in focus (e.g. internal frame of reference, attention to sensations, illness perception and susceptibility to suggestion). These individual factors cannot stand alone either, but are influenced by the surroundings. Anthropological research suggests that personal experiences and culture form a continuous feedback relationship which influence when and how sensations are understood as symptoms of disease and acted upon.
SUMMARY: The different approaches to symptom interpretation imply that we need to be cautious and conscious when interpreting survey findings that are based on symptom prevalence in the general population or in primary care. These findings will reflect a variety of interpretations of sensations, which are not equivalent to expressions of underlying disease. Furthermore, if diagnosis of disease is based exclusively on the presence of specific symptom characteristics, we may risk reinforcing a dualistic approach, including medicalisation of normal phenomena and devaluation of medically unexplained symptoms. Future research in primary care could gain from exploring symptoms as a generic phenomenon and raised awareness of symptom complexity.