Unwritten rules of talking to doctors about depression: Integrating qualitative and quantitative methods

Marsha N. Wittink, Frances K. Barg, Joseph J. Gallo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


PURPOSE: We wanted to understand concordance and discordance between physicians and patients about depression status by assessing older patient's views of interactions with their physicians. METHODS: We used an integrated mixed methods design that is both hypothesis testing and hypothesis generating. Patients aged 65 years and older, who identified themselves as being depressed, were recruited from the offices of primary care physicians and interviewed in their homes using a semistructured interview format. We compared patients whose physicians rated them as depressed with those whose physicians who did not according to personal characteristics (hypothesis testing). Themes regarding patient perceptions of their encounters with physicians were then used to generate further hypotheses. RESULTS: Patients whose physician rated them as depressed were younger than those whose physician did not. Standard measures, such as depressive symptoms and functional status, did not differentiate between patients. Four themes emerged in interviews with patients regarding how they interacted with their physicians; namely, "My doctor just picked it up," "I'm a good patient," "They just check out your heart and things," and "They'll just send you to a psychiatrist." All patients who thought the physician would "just pick up" depression and those who thought bringing up emotional content would result in a referral to a psychiatrist were rated as depressed by the physician. Few of the patients who discussed being a "good patient" were rated as depressed by the physician. CONCLUSIONS: Physicians may signal to patients, wittingly or unwittingly, how emotional problems will be addressed, influencing how patients perceive their interactions with physicians regarding emotional problems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)302-309
Number of pages8
JournalAnnals of family medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Aged
  • Communication
  • Depression
  • Primary health care
  • Research methodology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Family Practice


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