Lonely patients in general practice: a call for revealing GPs' emotions? A qualitative study

Fam Pract. 2009 Dec;26(6):501-9. doi: 10.1093/fampra/cmp059. Epub 2009 Sep 21.


Background: Loneliness is a universal phenomenon that influences one's health and health perception. GPs are confronted with lonely people quite often. Yet, what GPs think of this phenomenon and how they deal with emotions lonely patients evoke is not known.

Objective: We aimed to explore GPs' experiences with lonely patients. We wanted to gain insight in GPs' feelings regarding consultations with lonely patients and potential resulting behaviour from these feelings.

Methods: We performed a qualitative study based on semi-structured interviews. We interviewed 20 Dutch GPs. Transcripts were analysed according to a grounded theory-like method in order to bring to surface key concepts and relations between them.

Results: GPs considered loneliness as something subjective, a feeling. They found it relevant to know whether their patients were lonely. However, they had difficulty defining their task and experienced a lack of therapeutic options. Beside feelings of pity and interest, lonely patients could evoke feelings of frustration and powerlessness. These feelings were more pronounced when patients were chronically lonely and could cause GPs to spend less time on these patients or refer them more often. GPs did not constructively use their own emotions during consultation.

Conclusions: When confronted with lonely patients, a helpful distinction could be made between transitory and chronic loneliness. Chronically lonely patients are more likely to evoke negative feelings and behaviour in their GPs. GPs should try to recognize these emotions and make sure they do not harmfully influence consultation.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Loneliness*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Netherlands
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians, Family / psychology*
  • Qualitative Research