Effective patient care requires attending as much to patients' personal experiences of illnesses as to their diseases. Diseases are ferreted out by using the conventional medical model, but understanding illnesses requires a different approach. A patient-centred method focuses on four principal dimensions of patients' experiences: their ideas about what is wrong with them; their feelings about their illnesses, especially their fears; the impact of their problems on functioning; and their expectations about what should be done. The key to this approach is attention to patients' cues related to these dimensions; the goal is to follow patients' leads, to understand patients' experiences from their own point of view. This method improves patient satisfaction, complicance and outcome, and is applicable to the everyday work of family physicians with "ordinary" patients.