A specially developed type of talking therapy can help reduce unnecessary GP and hospital visits, according to a new study.
Cognitive behavioural rherapy for health anxiety (CBT-HA) can help reduce the condition, the study by researchers at Imperial College London found.
The condition sees patients worry excessively about their health and frequently consult doctors for diagnostic tests. Symptoms include chest pains or headaches that persist despite a doctor’s reassurance that there is no physical cause of their distress.
Researchers estimate the annual NHS costs of untreated patients attending unnecessary tests and appointments could be as high as £56 million.
Project lead and Professor of Community Psychiatry at Imperial College, Peter Tyrer, said: ‘CBT-HA allows therapists with no previous experience to be trained relatively easily.
‘It therefore has the potential to be used widely in general hospital settings under appropriate supervision. We recommend that further work is needed in research to identify and treat the growing problem of health anxiety in hospitals.’
Of the 28,991 patients screened before the study, 444 were recruited for the project from cardiology, endocrinology, gastroenterology, neurology and respiratory departments at five general hospitals in England.
The patients, aged 16-75 years, all scored more than 20 points on the Health Anxiety Inventory (HAI), indicating severe health anxiety and had satisfied diagnostic requirements for hypochondriasis. They were randomised to receive between four-10 hour-long sessions of CBT-HA, or to receive continued care in the clinic.
The study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), found that CBT-HA helps patients challenge their thoughts and recognise how their anxiety is maintained by seeking reassurance, excessive checking of their bodies and also checking their symptoms online.
Patients received an average of six sessions of treatment and all were followed up at intervals between three months and five years.
The study said that deaths were similar in both groups, but those allocated to standard care died earlier, suggesting that CBT-HA did not lead to failure to identify serious life-threatening disease.
The team found that the benefits of CBT-HA persisted after five years and the costs of the treatment were more than offset by the savings to health services.