Primary care consultations on emotional distress - a part of the acculturation process in patients with refugee backgrounds: a grounded theory approach

BMC Fam Pract. 2021 Jun 30;22(1):138. doi: 10.1186/s12875-021-01487-9.


Background: Considering the global refugee crisis, there is an increasing demand on primary care physicians to be able to adequately assess and address the health care needs of individual refugees, including both the somatic and psychiatric spectra. Meanwhile, intercultural consultations are often described as challenging, and studies exploring physician-patient communication focusing on emotional distress are lacking. Therefore, the aim was to explore physician-patient communication, with focus on cultural aspects of emotional distress in intercultural primary care consultations, using a grounded theory approach, considering both the physician's and the patient's perspective.

Methods: The study was set in Region Stockholm, Sweden. In total, 23 individual interviews and 3 focus groups were conducted. Resident physicians in family medicine and patients with refugee backgrounds, originating from Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, were included. Data was analysed using a grounded theory approach.

Results: Over time, primary care patients with refugee backgrounds seemed to adopt a culturally congruent model of emotional distress. Gradual acceptance of psychiatric diagnoses as explanatory models for distress and suffering was noted, which is in line with current tendencies in Sweden. This acculturation might be influenced by the physician. Three possible approaches used by residents in intercultural consultations were identified: "biomedical", "didactic" and "compensatory". They all indicated that diagnoses are culturally valid models to explain various forms of distress and may thus contribute to shifting patient perceptions of psychiatric diagnoses.

Conclusions: Physicians working in Swedish primary care may influence patients' acculturation process by inadvertently shifting their perceptions of psychiatric diagnoses. Residents expressed concerns, rather than confidence, in dealing with these issues. Focusing part of their training on how to address emotional distress in an intercultural context would likely be beneficial for all parties concerned.

Keywords: Acculturation; Culture; General practice; Mental disorders; Primary care physicians; Qualitative research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acculturation
  • Grounded Theory
  • Humans
  • Primary Health Care
  • Psychological Distress*
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Refugees*