OBJECTIVE: To investigate how primary care patients interpret the existing terminology used to describe medically unexplained symptoms; to contribute to the current academic discussion on unequivocal terminology. DESIGN: Descriptive cohort study. METHODS: We approached patients in the waiting rooms of two general medical practices in the city of Groningen and in the province of Drenthe. Based on a fictitious case, the patients were asked to assign connotations to a number of possible diagnoses for medically unexplained tiredness. The patients could choose from seven predetermined connotations. Among the diagnoses for medically unexplained tiredness were 'functional fatigue', 'chronic fatigue syndrome', 'psychosomatic tiredness', and 'medically unexplained tiredness'. From the seven connotations, we labeled three connotations as being negative. When patients gave at least one negative connotation to a possible diagnosis, the diagnosis was labeled as 'offensive'. RESULTS: A total of 184 patients participated in the study. From the alternative diagnoses for medically unexplained tiredness, 'psychosomatic tiredness' had the most negative connotations: at least one negative connotation for 65 (35%) patients. 'Chronic fatigue syndrome' and 'functional fatigue' had the fewest negative connotations: at least one negative connotation for respectively 17 (9%) and 24 (13%) patients. CONCLUSION: The terms 'chronic fatigue syndrome' and 'functional fatigue' were less offensive. Our results could imply that terms for medically unexplained tiredness that refer less to a psychological basis are most acceptable for the patient
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