Objectives: Our goal was to describe how physician knowledge of patients' families affects the processes of patient care in family practices.
Study design: Using a multimethod comparative case study design, detailed dictated field notes were recorded after direct observation of patient encounters and the office environment as part of the Prevention and Competing Demands in Primary Care Study. We identified domains of outpatient visits in which patients were accompanied by a family member or in which family-oriented content was discussed.
Population: Outpatient encounters with 1637 patients presenting in 18 family practices in the Midwest were analyzed using an editing style.
Outcomes: We developed a typology for ways in which family context affects outpatient visits.
Results: Patients were accompanied during 35% of all outpatient visits, the vast majority of these visits involving children. Family history or a family member's problems were discussed during 35% of visits during which no family member was present. An analysis of these "family-oriented" visits resulted in a typology of 6 ways that family context informs and affects the outpatient visit: (1) using family social context to illuminate patient disease, illness, and health; (2) using family to discover the source of an illness; (3) discussing and managing the health and illness of family members; (4) family concern for patient's health; (5) using the family as a care resource and care collaborator; and, (6) giving family members unscheduled care.
Conclusion: Family context is an important feature of family practice that influences the processes of patient care. Since family-oriented care is an essential feature of family practice, outcomes of this largely hidden part of care deserve further study.