Factors affecting primary care physician decision-making for patients with complex multimorbidity: a qualitative interview study

BMC Prim Care. 2022 Feb 5;23(1):25. doi: 10.1186/s12875-022-01633-x.


Background: Patients with multiple chronic conditions (multimorbidity) and additional psychosocial complexity are at higher risk of adverse outcomes. Establishing treatment or care plans for these patients must account for their disease interactions, finite self-management abilities, and even conflicting treatment recommendations from clinical practice guidelines. Despite existing insight into how primary care physicians (PCPs) approach care decisions for their patients in general, less is known about how PCPs make care planning decisions for more complex populations particularly within a medical home setting. We therefore sought to describe factors affecting physician decision-making when care planning for complex patients with multimorbidity within the team-based, patient-centered medical home setting in the integrated healthcare system of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).

Methods: This was a qualitative study involving semi-structured telephone interviews with PCPs working > 40% time in VHA clinics. Interviews were conducted from April to July, 2020. Content was analyzed with deductive and inductive thematic analysis.

Results: 23 physicians participated in interviews; most were MDs (n = 21) and worked in hospital-affiliated clinics (n = 14) across all regions of the VHA's national clinic network. We found internal, external, and relationship-based factors, with developed subthemes describing factors affecting decision-making for complex patients with multimorbidity. Physicians described tailoring decisions to individual patients; making decisions in keeping with an underlying internal style or habit; working towards an overarching goal for care; considering impacts from patient access and resources on care plans; deciding within boundaries provided by organizational structures; collaborating on care plans with their care team; and impacts on decisions from their own emotions and relationship with patient.

Conclusions: PCPs described internal, external, and relationship-based factors that affected their care planning for high-risk and complex patients with multimorbidity in the VHA. Findings offer useful strategies employed by physicians to effectively conduct care planning for complex patients in a medical home setting, such as delegation of follow-up within multidisciplinary care teams, optimizing visit time vs frequency, and deliberate investment in patient-centered relationship building to gain buy-in to care plans.

Keywords: Clinical decision-making; Multimorbidity; Primary care; Qualitative research; Veterans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Multimorbidity*
  • Patient-Centered Care
  • Physicians, Primary Care* / psychology
  • Primary Health Care
  • Qualitative Research