Labelling chronic illness in primary care: A good or a bad thing

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Traditionally the management of any chronic condition starts with its diagnosis. The labelling of disease can be beneficial in terms of defining appropriate treatment such as in coronary artery disease. However, sometimes it may be detrimental such as when x-rays are used to diagnose lumbar spondylosis leading to patients inappropriately limiting their activity. Chronic knee pain in the elderly is another example where applying labels is problematical. A common diagnosis in this situation is osteoarthritis, but this label can be applied in two ways: as a radiological diagnosis, or as a clinical one. The x-ray diagnosis, however, does not equate with the clinical syndrome, and vice versa. In addition, diagnosing knee pain as osteoarthritis does not necessarily help in management, since a patient's debility is more dependent upon their clinical signs and symptoms than the presence of radiographic osteoarthritis, and by the same token its clinical counterpart. GPs are consistent in their management of knee pain, but in attempting to diagnose the pain as osteoarthritis, these plans can alter and become more dependent on the actual diagnosis than the clinical picture. As a result management may well diverge from what the current best evidence supports. Diagnosis for diagnosis sake, should therefore be discouraged, and chronic knee pain gives us one example of why this is the case. GPs would be better placed to manage this condition if it was considered more as a regional pain syndrome, perhaps defining it simply as 'chronic knee pain in older people'. This example suggests that there is a pressing need in primary care to carefully consider in chronic disease when it is appropriate to be definitive in diagnosis such that when using disease specific labels, there is definite benefit for the patient and doctor. © British Journal of General Practice.




Bedson, J., McCarney, R., & Croft, P. (2004). Labelling chronic illness in primary care: A good or a bad thing. British Journal of General Practice, 54(509), 932–938.

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