Objective: To obtain descriptions of how family physicians detect and manage mental health problems commonly encountered in their practices and how they function in their role as mental health care providers. Also, to elicit their perceptions of barriers to the delivery of optimal mental health care.
Method: Focus groups with standardized questions were used to elicit descriptive data, opinions, attitudes, and terminology. Convenience samples of 10 to 12 physicians were chosen in each of Ontario's 7 health care planning regions, with a mixture of rural, urban, and university settings. Discussions were audiotaped, transcribed, analyzed, and recurring themes were extracted.
Results: Family physicians' descriptions of the range of problems commonly encountered and their detection and management highlight the unique nature of mental health care in the primary care setting. The realities of family medicine, the undifferentiated nature of presenting problems, the long-term physician-patient relationship, and the frequent overlap of physical and mental health problems dictate an approach to diagnosis and treatment that differs from mental health care delivery in other settings. Difficulties in the relationship with local psychiatric services--accessing psychiatric care (especially for emergencies), poor communication with mental health care providers, and cumbersome intake procedures of many mental health services--were consistently identified as barriers to the delivery of optimal mental health care.
Conclusions: This study confirms the importance of the family physician in the detection and management of mental health problems. It offers insights into how family physicians function in their role as mental health care providers and how they deal with diagnostic and management challenges that are specific to primary care. It also identifies barriers to the optimal delivery of mental health care in the primary care setting, including difficulties at the clinical interface between psychiatry and family medicine. Further studies are needed to explore these issues in greater depth.