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Psychol Med. 2000 Sep;30(5):1233-7.

Detection of psychological distress by practice nurses in general practice.

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  • 1Section of Psychiatric Nursing, Institute of Psychiatry, London.



The general practitioner (GP) has traditionally been the first port of call for people with psychiatric morbidity but increasingly other members of the primary care team see the patients first, particularly practice nurses. The numbers and roles of practice nurses have expanded greatly over the past decade and it is important that practice nurses are able to recognize patients with psychiatric morbidity. This paper reports a study to determine the abilities of 24 practice nurses to detect psychiatric morbidity in patients attending their clinics.


Twenty-four practices were randomly selected from 41 practices recruited from South London and Kent. One nurse per practice took part in the study. Patients were asked to complete a 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) while waiting for their appointment with the practice nurse. Following their consultation, the practice nurse rated the patients' level of psychological distress on a five-point rating scale.


The response rate of patients was 97% (N= 1710). The GHQ case rate was 36%. The mean detection rate by practice nurses when identifying significant distress was 16% (between nurse variation, 0% to 61%). The mean specificity was 96% (variation 77% to 100%). A second analysis, changing the nurse criterion to recognition of distress increased the mean sensitivity rate to 58% (variation 31% to 84%) but the mean specificity rate decreased to 66% (variation 26% to 95%).


These results demonstrate that practice nurses' caseloads include a high proportion of patients with psychiatric morbidity and that agreement with the GHQ classification of psychiatric morbidity is modest. Therefore, training in detection will be crucial for the nurses.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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