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December 27, 1995

Somatization and Medicalization in the Era of Managed Care

Author Affiliations

From the Division of Psychiatry, Brigham and Women's Hospital; and the Department of Psychiatry and the Center to Study the Illness Experience, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass.

JAMA. 1995;274(24):1931-1934. doi:10.1001/jama.1995.03530240041038

Somatization, the reporting of somatic symptoms that have no pathophysiological explanation, appears to be increasing as sociocultural currents reduce the public's tolerance of mild symptoms and benign infirmities and lower the threshold for seeking medical attention for such complaints. These trends coincide with a progressive medicalization of physical distress in which uncomfortable bodily states and isolated symptoms are reclassified as diseases for which medical treatment is sought. Somatization and medicalization are likely to become more problematic in the era of managed care. Under capitation, providers will have greater incentives to reduce utilization, and somatizing patients may feel forced to express their "dis-ease" in more urgent and exaggerated terms in order to gain access to the physician. In addition, prepaid subscribers will suffer little financial disincentive to seek medical attention for relatively minor complaints; therefore, they are likely to increase the demand for physician consultation. This situation suggests an urgent need to improve the management of somatizing patients. Innovative consultative, behavioral, and educational interventions are now available. In addition, medical professionals should greet the process of medicalization with considerable caution and educate the public more about the normative presence of symptoms and bodily distress in healthy people. Additional research is needed into somatization and its relationship to the demand for medical care. In an era of managed care, increased attention should be devoted to understanding and controlling the demand for care, a large portion of which is symptom driven.

(JAMA. 1995;274:1931-1934)