How does the general practitioner understand the patient? A qualitative study about psychological interventions in general practice

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General practitioners (GPs) treat more than 90% of common mental disorders. However, the content of their interventions remains undefined. The present study aimed to explore GPs' processes of understanding the patients with emotional problems.


The study was qualitative using semi-structured interviews with 14 general practitioners sampled purposively. Observation was done in the surgeries of four of the GPs.


Analysis of the interviews was made by Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). Observation notes were analysed from a hermeneutic-phenomenological perspective, inspired by IPA.


GPs had very different approaches to patients with emotional problems. Physical symptoms were the usual reason for consulting the GP. Understanding patients' perception of the meaning of their bodily symptoms in their complex life-situation was considered important by some of the participants. Arriving at this understanding often occurred through the narrative delivered in different narrative styles mirroring the patients' mental state. Awareness of relational factors and self-awareness and self-reflexivity on the part of the GP influenced this process. Other participants did not enter this process of understanding patients' emotional problems.


The concept of mentalization could be used to describe GPs' processes of understanding their patients when making psychosocial interventions and could form an important ingredient in a general practice theory in this field. Only some participants had a mentalizing approach. The study calls attention to the advantage of training this capacity for promoting professional treatment of patients and a professional dialogue across sector borders.

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