Background: Improving the patient experience of primary care is a stated focus of efforts to transform primary care practices into "Patient-centered Medical Homes" (PCMH) in the United States, yet understanding and promoting what defines a positive experience from the patient's perspective has been de-emphasized relative to the development of technological and communication infrastructure at the PCMH. The objective of this qualitative study was to compare primary care clinicians' and their patients' perceptions of the patients' experiences, expectations and preferences as they try to achieve care for depression.
Methods: We interviewed 6 primary care clinicians along with 30 of their patients with a history of depressive disorder attending 4 small to medium-sized primary care practices from rural and urban settings.
Results: Three processes on the way to satisfactory depression care emerged: 1. a journey, often from fractured to connected care; 2. a search for a personal understanding of their depression; 3. creation of unique therapeutic spaces for treating current depression and preventing future episodes. Relative to patients' observations regarding stigma's effects on accepting a depression diagnosis and seeking treatment, clinicians tended to underestimate the presence and effects of stigma. Patients preferred clinicians who were empathetic listeners, while clinicians worried that discussing depression could open "Pandora's box" of lengthy discussions and set them irrecoverably behind in their clinic schedules. Clinicians and patients agreed that somatic manifestations of mental distress impeded the patients' ability to understand their suffering as depression. Clinicians reported supporting several treatment modalities beyond guideline-based approaches for depression, yet also displayed surface-level understanding of the often multifaceted support webs their patient described.
Conclusions: Improving processes and outcomes in primary care may demand heightened ability to understand and measure the patients' experiences, expectations and preferences as they receive primary care. Future research would investigate a potential mismatch between clinicians' and patients' perceptions of the effects of stigma on achieving care for depression, and on whether time spent discussing depression during the clinical visit improves outcomes. Improving care and outcomes for chronic disorders such as depression may require primary care clinicians to understand and support their patients' unique 'therapeutic spaces.'