What you think matters most when you’re ill

02 February, 2012

What you think about your illness matters just as much, if not more, in determining your health according to a new report by researchers from The University of Auckland and King’s College London.

The paper "Patients’ perceptions of their illness: The dynamo of volition in health care" which reviews many studies examining the impact of perception on health was published in the Association in Psychological Science journal Current Directions in Psychological Science this week.

Findings show that people’s perceptions about their illness bear a direct relationship to several important health outcomes, including how well they are able to function, their use of health care, adherence to treatment plans, the duration of the illness and even mortality. Moreover, some research suggests that how a person views their illness may play a bigger role in determining their health outcomes than the actual severity of the disease.

The review shows that illness perceptions change rapidly in response to diagnostic results and can be associated with emotional distress, recovery, and disability, as well as with treatment-related behaviour such as adherence.

Lead author Professor Keith Petrie from The University of Auckland’s Department of Psychological Medicine says: "In general, our illness perceptions emerge out of our beliefs about illness and what illness means in the context of our lives. We might have beliefs about how an illness is caused, how long it will last, how it will impact us or our family, and how we can control or cure it. The bottom line is that patients’ perceptions of their illness guide their decisions about health.

"This suggests that effective treatment is about much more than having a competent physician. 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."

The authors suggest that simple interventions such as conversations between health professionals and patients which elicit what people really think about their illness might identify patients at risk of coping poorly with the demands of their illness, allow erroneous beliefs to be corrected and improve treatment regimes.

"Examining patients’ perceptions opens up a new approach in modern medicine. Ultimately it could lead to more effective treatment."

Source: The University of Auckland