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Under-recognition of medically unexplained symptom conditions among US Veterans with Gulf War Illness.
Kane NS, Anastasides N, Litke DR, Helmer DA, Hunt SC, Quigley KS, Pigeon WR, McAndrew LM. Under-recognition of medically unexplained symptom conditions among US Veterans with Gulf War Illness. PLoS ONE. 2021 Dec 7; 16(12):e0259341.
Conditions defined by persistent "medically unexplained" physical symptoms and syndromes (MUS) are common and disabling. Veterans from the Gulf War (deployed 1990-1991) have notably high prevalence and disability from MUS conditions. Individuals with MUS report that providers do not recognize their MUS conditions. Our goal was to determine if Veterans with MUS receive an ICD-10 diagnosis for a MUS condition or receive disability benefits available to them for these conditions.
A chart review was conducted with US Veterans who met case criteria for Gulf War Illness, a complex MUS condition (N = 204, M = 53 years-old, SD = 7). Three coders independently reviewed Veteran's medical records for MUS condition diagnosis or service-connection along with comorbid mental and physical health conditions. Service-connection refers to US Veterans Affairs disability benefits eligibility for conditions or injuries experienced during or exacerbated by military service.
Twenty-nine percent had a diagnosis of a MUS condition in their medical record, the most common were irritable colon/irritable bowel syndrome (16%) and fibromyalgia (11%). Slightly more Veterans were service-connected for a MUS condition (38%) as compared to diagnosed. There were high rates of diagnoses and service-connection for mental health (diagnoses 76% and service-connection 74%), musculoskeletal (diagnoses 86%, service-connection 79%), and illness-related conditions (diagnoses 98%, service-connection 49%).
Given that all participants were Gulf War Veterans who met criteria for a MUS condition, our results suggest that MUS conditions in Gulf War Veterans are under-recognized with regard to clinical diagnosis and service-connected disability. Veterans were more likely to be diagnosed and service-connected for musculoskeletal-related and mental health conditions than MUS conditions. Providers may need education and training to facilitate diagnosis of and service-connection for MUS conditions. We believe that greater acknowledgement and validation of MUS conditions would increase patient engagement with healthcare as well as provider and patient satisfaction with care.