Chronic debilitating fatigue in Irish general practice: a survey of general practitioners’ experience

BACKGROUND: Doctors are called upon to treat chronic debilitating fatigue without the help of a protocol of care.

AIMS: To estimate the incidence of chronic debilitating fatigue in Irish general practice, to obtain information on management strategy and outcome, to explore the attitudes of practitioners (GPs) towards the concept of a chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and to recruit practitioners to a prospective study of chronic fatigue in primary care.

METHOD: A total of 200 names were selected from the database of the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP); 164 of these were eligible for the study.

RESULTS: Altogether, 118 questionnaires were returned (72%). Ninety-two (78%) responders identified cases of chronic fatigue, giving an estimated 2.1 cases per practice and an incidence of 1 per 1000 population. All social classes were represented, with a male to female ratio of 1:2. Eleven disparate approaches to treatment were advocated. Many (38%) were dissatisfied with the quality of care delivered, and 45% seldom or hardly ever referred cases for specialist opinion. The majority (58%) accepted CFS as a distinct entity, 34% were undecided, and 8% rejected it. Forty-two (35%) GPs volunteered for a prospective study.

CONCLUSION: Chronic fatigue is found in Irish general practice among patients of both sexes and all social classes. Doctors differ considerably in their management of patients and are dissatisfied with the quality of care they deliver. Many cases are not referred for specialist opinion. A prospective database is required to accurately assess the scale of this public health problem and to develop a protocol of care.

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