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INTRODUCTION: Abdominal symptoms are common in primary care but infrequently might be due to an upper gastrointestinal (UGI) cancer. Patients' descriptions may differ from medical terminology used by general practitioners (GPs). This may affect how information about abdominal symptoms possibly due to an UGI cancer are documented, creating potential missed opportunities for timely investigation. OBJECTIVES: To explore how abdominal symptoms are communicated during primary care consultations, and identify characteristics of patients' descriptions that underpin variation in the accuracy and completeness with which they are documented in medical records. METHODS AND ANALYSIS: Primary care consultation video recordings, transcripts and medical records from an existing dataset were screened for adults reporting abdominal symptoms. We conducted a qualitative content analysis to capture alignments (medical record entries matching patient verbal and non-verbal descriptions) and misalignments (symptom information omitted or differing from patient descriptions). Categories were informed by the Calgary-Cambridge guide's 'gathering information' domains and patterns in descriptions explored. RESULTS: Our sample included 28 consultations (28 patients with 18 GPs): 10 categories of different clinical features of abdominal symptoms were discussed. The information GPs documented about these features commonly did not match what patients described, with misalignments more common than alignments (67 vs 43 instances, respectively). Misalignments often featured patients using vague descriptors, figurative speech, lengthy explanations and broad hand gestures. Alignments were characterised by patients using well-defined terms, succinct descriptions and precise gestures for symptoms with an exact location. Abdominal sensations reported as 'pain' were almost always documented compared with expressions of 'discomfort'. CONCLUSIONS: Abdominal symptoms that are well defined or communicated as 'pain' may be more salient to GPs than those expressed vaguely or as 'discomfort'. Variable documentation of abdominal symptoms in medical records may have implications for the development of clinical decision support systems and decisions to investigate possible UGI cancer.

Original publication




Journal article


BMJ open

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