The benefits and harms of receiving a polycystic ovary syndrome diagnosis: a qualitative study of women's experiences

T Copp, J Hersch, D M Muscat, K J McCaffery, J Doust, A Dokras, B W Mol, J Jansen

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STUDY QUESTION: What are the benefits and harms of receiving a polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) diagnosis in a community sample of women, including impact on psychosocial wellbeing, lifestyle choices and behaviour?

SUMMARY ANSWER: Although some women benefit considerably from the diagnosis, such as through increased awareness and reassurance, women with minimal symptoms may experience more harm than benefit, including long-lasting anxiety and altered life plans.

WHAT IS KNOWN ALREADY: Disease labels can validate symptoms and play a vital role in understanding and coping with illness; however, they can also cause harm by evoking illness schemas about severity and permanence. Regarding PCOS, the diagnostic criteria have expanded over time to include women with milder phenotypes (such as those without signs of androgen excess). This has occurred despite limited investigation of the benefits and harms of the diagnosis and has increased the number of women diagnosed.

STUDY DESIGN SIZE DURATION: Semi-structured interviews were conducted face-to-face or by telephone with 26 participants from April-July 2018 to explore women's experiences with the diagnosis, including the benefits and harms of receiving the diagnosis and the impact on their life.

PARTICIPANTS/MATERIALS SETTING METHODS: In total, 26 women in the community self-reporting a diagnosis of PCOS (reporting mild to severe symptoms) made by a medical doctor, aged 18-45 years and living in Australia were recruited through social media. Data were analysed thematically using Framework analysis.

MAIN RESULTS AND THE ROLE OF CHANCE: The study identified a range of both positive and negative effects of a PCOS diagnosis in the immediate, short and long-term, which were influenced by symptom severity, expectations and experience. For women with previously unexplained and bothersome symptoms, it was a relief to receive a diagnosis, and this resulted in an increased understanding about the importance of a healthy lifestyle. By contrast, women with milder symptoms often reported feeling shocked and overwhelmed by the diagnosis, consequently experiencing anxiety about the associated long-term risks. The majority of women, regardless of symptom severity, experienced prolonged worry and anxiety about infertility, resulting for some in risk taking with contraception, unintended pregnancies, pressure to conceive early or altered life plans. With time, many women developed positive coping strategies and perceived the diagnosis to be valuable, including those who felt they had experienced minimal benefit or even harm.

LIMITATIONS REASONS FOR CAUTION: PCOS diagnosis was self-reported and the sample was highly educated.

WIDER IMPLICATIONS OF THE FINDINGS: Fear of infertility was salient for many women, underscoring the need for accurate information, counselling and reassurance of fertility potential. Given the risk of significant consequences, health professionals should use a tailored approach to PCOS diagnosis to increase the benefits of appropriate and timely diagnosis for women affected by significant symptoms, while reducing the harms of unnecessarily labelling healthy women for whom the benefits of a diagnosis are small.

STUDY FUNDING/COMPETING INTERESTS: The study was funded by the University of Sydney Lifespan Research Network and an NHMRC Program Grant (APP1113532). B.W.M. reports consultancy for ObsEva, Merck, Merck KGaA and Guerbet. No further competing interests exist.


Original languageEnglish
Article numberhoz026
Number of pages12
JournalHuman Reproduction Open
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 31 Oct 2019


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