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Managing depression in primary care: Another example of the inverse care law?

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Carl May, Stephen Hedley


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Background. Depression is a common problem, often being recurrent or becoming chronic. The National Service Framework for Mental Health (published by the Department of Health, 1999) states that people with depression should continue to be predominantly managed in primary care. There is much evidence that the detection and management of depression by GPs could be improved, but little work has focused on GPs' views of their work with depressed patients. Objectives. This was a qualitative study exploring GP attitudes to the management of patients with depression. Views of GPs in socio-economically deprived areas are compared with those serving more affluent populations. Methods. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with two groups of GPs in north-west England. One group of GPs (22) were practising in inner-city areas, and a second group (13) in suburban and semi-rural practices. All were Principals in practices that participated in under-graduate teaching. The interviews were audio-taped and subsequently transcribed verbatim. Analysis was by constant comparison until category saturation of each theme was achieved. Results. Subjects conceptualized depression as an everyday problem of practice, rather than as an objective diagnostic category. Thematic coding of their accounts suggests a tension between three kinds of views of depressed people: (i) That depression is a common and normal response to life events or change and that it reflects the medicalization of these conditions; (ii) That the label or diagnosis of depression offers a degree of secondary gain to both patients and doctors, particularly to those GPs practising in inner-city areas and (iii) That inner-city GPs experienced on-going management of depressed people as an interactional problem, in contrast to those GPs serving a less deprived population who saw depression as a treatable illness and as rewarding work for the GP. Conclusion. Depression is commonly presented to GPs who feel that the diagnosis often involves the separation of a normal reaction to environment and true illness. For those patients living in socio-economically deprived environments, the problems, and therefore the depression, are seen to be insoluble. This has an important implication for the construction of educational interventions around improving the recognition and treatment of depression in primary care: some doctors may be reluctant to recognize and respond to such patients in depth because of the much wider structural and social factors that we have suggested in this paper. That it is the doctors working with deprived populations who express these views, means that the 'Inverse care law' [Tudor Hart J. The inverse care Law. Lancet 1971; 1(7696): 405-412] operates in the management of depression.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Chew-Graham CA, Mullin S, May CR, Hedley S, Cole H

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Family Practice

Year: 2002

Volume: 19

Issue: 6

Pages: 632-637

ISSN (print): 0263-2136

ISSN (electronic): 1460-2229

Publisher: Oxford University Press


DOI: 10.1093/fampra/19.6.632

PubMed id: 12429666


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