Difference in Verbal Behaviors of Patients With and Without Emotional Distress During Primary Care Consultation

This article studies the cues patients give when experiencing distress during the primary care consultation.


Background. In primary care consultations patients with emotional distress tend to give verbal cues or symptom reports with psychological or psychiatric contents. This study examined the cue behavior defined not only by psychological, but also by medical, social and life episodes related contents in patients with and without emotional distress, recognized and not by their GP. The GP’s verbal behaviour in relation to patients’ cue emission was also investigated.

Method. For the six participating GPs two groups of matched pairs of patients (N=238) were created. The two groups comprised either patients considered by GPs as being without emotional distress or patients considered as emotionally distressed. Within each pair, one patient was a case (GHQ-12 score >2) and the other was the matched control (GHQ-12 score <3). The medical interviews with these patients were transcribed and classified according to the Verona Medical Interview Classification System (VR-MICS).

Results. GHQ positive patients of both groups gave more cues in terms of total proportion than their matched controls (GHQ negative patients). The proportion of cues given by patients was related also to GP’s verbal behaviour, increasing with closed psychosocial questions and decreasing with the use of active interview techniques. Attribution of emotional distress was more frequent when patients were high attenders and had a past psychiatric history. The content of cues changed in relation to GP’s attribution: recognized patients gave more cues and more often with psychological content, patients not recognized as distressed gave mainly cues related to their lifestyle and life episodes.

Conclusions. To improve the recognition of those emotionally distressed patients most likely to be missed GPs should increase their attention to cues related to life style and life episodes.

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