Technician, friend, detective, and healer: Family physicians' responses to emotional distress

W. D. Robinson, L. A. Prest, J. L. Susman, J. Rouse, B. F. Crabtree

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


OBJECTIVE: We developed a typology of physicians' responses to patients' expressed mental health needs to better understand the gap between idealized practice and actual care for emotional distress and mental health problems. STUDY DESIGN: We used a multimethod comparative case study design of 18 family practices that included detailed descriptive field notes from direct observation of 1637 outpatient visits. An immersion/crystallization approach was used to explore physicians' responses to emotional distress and apparent mental health issues. POPULATION: A total of 379 outpatient encounters were reviewed from a purposeful sample of 13 family physicians from the 57 clinicians observed. OUTCOMES MEASURED: Descriptive field notes of outpatient visits were examined for emotional content and physicians' responses to emotional distress. RESULTS: Analyses revealed a 3-phase process by which physicians responded to emotional distress: recognition, triage, and management. The analyses also uncovered a 4-quadrant typology of management based on the physician's philosophy (biomedical vs holistic) and skill level (basic vs more advanced). CONCLUSIONS Physicians appear to manage mental health issues by using 1 of 4 approaches based on their philosophy and core set of skills. Physician education and practice improvement should be tailored to build on physicians' natural philosophical proclivity and psychosocial skills.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)864-870
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Family Practice
Issue number10
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Family practice
  • Mental health services
  • Office visits
  • Physician's practice patterns

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Family Practice


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