Background: The relationship between physician communication patterns and the successful recognition of depression is poorly understood.
Methods: We used unannounced visits by actors playing standardized patients to evaluate verbal communication between primary care physicians and a patient presenting with a minor depression scenario. Participants (n = 77) were assigned to receive 2 visits from a man or woman portraying a 26-year-old patient with chronic headaches who meets the criteria for minor depression. The standardized patients carried hidden audiotape recorders and high-fidelity microphones to document the encounters. The audiotapes were coded at 2-second intervals. These data were linked to information gathered from standardized patient checklists, medical records, and debriefing telephone calls with participants.
Results: We obtained complete data on 59 (77%) of the physician-patient encounters; of those, 43 (73%) of the physicians recognized depression. Physicians who recognized depression asked twice as many questions about feelings and affect compared with those who did not (for feelings: 1.9% of total physician activity vs. 0.9%, P = .017; for affect: composite score of 2.7% of total physician activity vs 1.3%, P = .003). We found no differences in the proportion or timing of broad to narrow questioning between those who did and did not recognize depression. Physicians who successfully recognized depression later in the interview showed an increase in questions about feelings in the quartile just before recognition occurred.
Conclusions: Physicians who recognized depression differed significantly in the percentage of questions about feeling and affect, and an increase in questions about feelings may precede a diagnosis of depression, though more research is needed to establish this as an important finding.