The changing face of chronic illness management in primary care: A qualitative study of underlying influences and unintended outcomes

Linda M. Hunt, Meta Kreiner, Howard Brody

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


PURPOSE Recently, there has been dramatic increase in the diagnosis and pharmaceutical management of common chronic illnesses. Using qualitative data collected in primary care clinics, we assessed how these trends play out in clinical care. METHODS This qualitative study focused on management of type 2 diabetes and hypertension in 44 primary care clinics in Michigan and was based on interviews with 58 clinicians and 70 of their patients, and observations of 107 clinical consultations. We assessed clinicians' treatment strategies and discussions of factors influencing treatment decisions, and patients' understandings and experiences in managing these illnesses. RESULTS Clinicians focused on helping patients achieve test results recommended by national guidelines, and most reported combining 2 or more medications per condition to reach targets. Medication selection and management was the central focus of the consultations we observed. Polypharmacy was common among patients, with more than one-half taking 5 or more medications. Patient interviews indicated that heavy reliance on pharmaceuticals presents challenges to patient well-being, including financial costs and experiences of adverse health effects. CONCLUSIONS Factors promoting heavy use of pharmaceuticals include lower diagnostic and treatment thresholds, clinician-auditing and reward systems, and the prescribing cascade, whereby more medications are prescribed to control the effects of already-prescribed medications. We present a conceptual model, the inverse benefit law, to provide insight into the impact of pharmaceutical marketing efforts on the observed trends. We make recommendations about limiting the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on clinical practice, toward improving the well-being of patients with chronic illness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)452-460
Number of pages9
JournalAnnals of family medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Chronic illness
  • Clinical practice guidelines
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Drug therapy
  • Hypertension
  • Pharmaceutical marketing
  • Physician incentive programs
  • Polypharmacy
  • Prescribing patterns, physician

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Family Practice


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