Don’t Wait for Patients to Bring Up Their GI Symptoms Don’t Wait for Patients to Bring Up Their GI Symptoms

Nearly three-quarters of Americans would wait before discussing GI symptoms with a health care provider if their bowel frequency or symptoms changed, with more than a quarter overall waiting for symptoms to become severe, according to a new survey from the American Gastroenterological Association.

Nearly 40% of people said GI symptoms had disrupted everyday activities such as exercising, running errands, and spending time with family or friends, but despite these disruptions, 30% of people said they would only discuss their bowel-related concerns if their doctor brought it up first. In response, the AGA launched “Trust Your Gut,” an awareness campaign aimed at shortening the time from the onset of bowel symptoms to discussions with health care providers.

Dr Rajeev Jain

“So many patients are either fearful or embarrassed about discussing their digestive symptoms such that they delay care unless the health care provider brings it up,” said Rajeev Jain, MD, a gastroenterologist with Texas Digestive Disease Consultants, AGA patient education adviser and a Trust Your Gut spokesperson.

“This potential delay could be detrimental in some cases, such as bleeding related to colon cancer,” he said. “If diagnosed sooner, an operation or chemotherapy could lead to treatment and a cure in those cases, versus advanced cancer that may be incurable.”

The AGA Trust Your Gut survey, conducted by Kelton Global during May 9-11, 2022, included 1,010 respondents from a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults.

Struggling With the Issue

About 28% of respondents said they would see a clinician immediately if their bowel frequency or symptoms changed. However, 72% said they would wait, and on top of that, 27% said they would wait until the condition became severe or didn’t resolve over time. Women were more likely than men to say they would wait, at 72% versus 64%.

Overall, 39% of respondents said bowel issues have stopped them from doing some type of activity in the past year. Men were more likely than women to say that bowel issues have affected their ability to do an activity, at 44% versus 35%.

Dr Andrea Shin

“Typically, when it comes to functional or motility disorders or bowel dysfunction, we tend to see a higher prevalence in women, so this was somewhat surprising to see,” said Andrea Shin, MD, a gastroenterology specialist and assistant professor of medicine at Indiana University, Indianapolis, and AGA patient education adviser designate.

“Part of this difference may be related to the communication barrier and how sex or gender affects that relationship between a clinician and a patient,” she said.

The reasons for patients’ reluctance varies, but themes of uncertainty and embarrassment are prevalent. About 33% said they’re not sure whether the symptoms are a problem, 31% said they hope the symptoms improve on their own, 23% said it’s embarrassing, and 12% don’t know what to tell the doctor. Men were more likely than women to say they don’t know what to say to a doctor about their symptoms, at 15% versus 9%.

Starting the Conversation

From a young age, many respondents were raised to avoid the topic of bowel issues. About 23% said their parents encouraged them not to mention bathroom-related health issues, and 10% said they didn’t talk about bowel issues at all. Another 32% said they could talk about it but had to use code words, such as “go to the bathroom” or “potty.”

“What this highlights is that patients are culturally taught not to talk about their digestive tract, or they’re embarrassed or uncertain,” Jain said. “At the end of the day, we need to destigmatize discussions about digestive function and normalize it as part of overall health.”

The survey respondents said they’d feel most comfortable talking about bowel issues with doctors (63%) and nurses (41%), as well as a significant other (44%), parent (32%), or friend (27%). Women were more likely than men to feel comfortable turning to a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant (47% versus 35%) or a friend (30% versus 24%).

To feel more comfortable with these conversations, 42% of survey participants said they would like their doctor or clinician to describe what’s normal. About 30% want to know the appropriate terms to describe their situation.

Health care providers should also consider the cultural and social factors that may affect a patient’s disease experience, as well as how they interact with the health care system, Shin said.

“Understanding these differences might help us to better engage with a community that is diverse,” she said. “In general, we also need to be more proactive about drawing these conversations out of patients, who may not mention it unless we ask because they find it so personal.”

The AGA Trust Your Gut campaign is supported by a sponsorship from Janssen. Jain and Shin reported to relevant disclosures.

This article originally appeared in GI and Hepatology News.