Background: Insomnia affects around one-third of adults in the UK. Many sufferers seek help from primary care.
Aim: To explore patients' and primary care practitioners' expectations, experiences, and outcomes of consultations for sleep difficulties, as a basis for improving the treatment of insomnia in primary care.
Design of study: A qualitative phenomenological approach.
Method: Separate focus groups for GPs and nurse prescribers and patients recruited from eight general practices that were in a quality improvement collaborative. Constant comparative analysis was used.
Results: Emergent themes from 14 focus groups comparing participating patients (n = 30) and practitioners (n = 15), provided insights on presentation, beliefs, expectations, and management of sleep problems. Patients initially tried to resolve insomnia themselves; consulting was often a last resort. Patients felt they needed to convince practitioners that their sleep difficulties were serious. They described insomnia in terms of the impact it was having on their life, whereas clinicians tended to focus on underlying causes. By the time patients consulted, many expected a prescription. Clinicians often assumed this was what patients wanted, and felt this would hamper patients' ability to take non-drug treatments seriously. Clinicians expected patients who were already on sleeping tablets to be resistant to stopping them, whereas patients were often open to alternatives.
Conclusion: Better management of insomnia should take into account the perceptions and interactions of patients and practitioners. Practitioners need to empathise, listen, elicit patients' beliefs and expectations, assess sleep better, and offer a range of treatments, including cognitive and behavioural therapies, tailored to individual needs. Practitioner education should incorporate understanding of patients' decision-making processes, the clinicians' role during the consultation, and how to negotiate and deliver strategies for resolving sleep problems.