Mind Matters When You Are Ill

Published: Friday, January 27, 2012 - 18:33 in Health & Medicine

Whenever we fall ill, there are many different factors that come
together to influence the course of our illness. Additional medical
conditions, stress levels, and social support all have an impact on our
health and well-being, especially when we are ill. But a new report
suggests that what you think about your illness matters just as much, if
not more, in determining your health outcomes. In the February issue of
Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the
Association for Psychological Science, Keith Petrie, of the University
of Auckland, and John Weinman, of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's
College, review the existing literature on patients' perceptions of
illness. The authors find that people's illness perceptions bear a
direct relationship to several important health outcomes, including
their level of functioning and ability, utilization of health care,
adherence to treatment plans laid out by health care professionals, and
even overall mortality.

In fact, some research suggests that how a person views his illness may
play a bigger role in determining his health outcomes than the actual
severity of his disease.

In general, our illness perceptions emerge out of our beliefs about
illness and what illness means in the context of our lives. So, we might
have beliefs about how an illness is caused, how long it will last, how
it will impact us or our family members, and how we can control or cure
it. The bottom line, says Petrie, is that "patients' perceptions of
their illness guide their decisions about health." If, for example, we
feel like a prescribed treatment isn't making us feel better we might
stop that treatment.

Research on illness perceptions suggest that effective health care
treatment plans are about much more than having a competent physician.
According to Petrie, "a doctor can make accurate diagnoses and have
excellent treatments but if the therapy doesn't fit with the patient's
view of their illness, they are unlikely to keep taking it." A treatment
that does not consider the patient's view is likely to fail, he argues.

The authors conclude that understanding illness perceptions and
incorporating them into health care is critical to effective treatment.
Asking patients about how they view their illness gives physicians the
opportunity to identify and correct any inaccurate beliefs patients may
have. Once a patient's illness perceptions are clearly laid out, a
physician can try to nudge those beliefs in a direction that is more
compatible with treatment or better health outcomes. Such conversations
can help practitioners identify patients that are at particular risk of
coping poorly with the demands of their illness.

Research confirms that brief, straightforward psychoeducational
interventions can modify negative illness beliefs and lead to
improvements over a range of different health outcomes. But this
research is still new and scientists don't know much about how our
illness perceptions develop in the first place. With mounting pressure
to lower the costs of healthcare, continued research on illness
perceptions will help practitioners design effective interventions that
are able to reach a large number of patients.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

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