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The perceived meaning of a (w)holistic view among general practitioners and district nurses in Swedish primary care: a qualitative study

Eva Lena Strandberg12*, Ingvar Ovhed12, Lars Borgquist3 and Susan Wilhelmsson4

Author Affiliations

1 Lund University, Department of Clinical Sciences, Malmö, Family Medicine, Malmö University Hospital, SE-205 02, Malmö, Sweden

2 Blekinge County Council, SE-371 81 Karlskrona, Sweden

3 General Practice, Department of Health and Society, Faculty of Health Science Linköping University, SE-581 83 Linköping, Sweden

4 R&D Department of Local Health Care, County Council of Östergötland, SE-581 85 Linköping, Sweden

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BMC Family Practice 2007, 8:8  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-8-8

Published: 8 March 2007



The definition of primary care varies between countries. Swedish primary care has developed from a philosophic viewpoint based on quality, accessibility, continuity, co-operation and a holistic view. The meaning of holism in international literature differs between medicine and nursing. The question is, if the difference is due to different educational traditions. Due to the uncertainties in defining holism and a holistic view we wished to study, in depth, how holism is perceived by doctors and nurses in their clinical work. Thus, the aim was to explore the perceived meaning of a holistic view among general practitioners (GPs) and district nurses (DNs).


Seven focus group interviews with a purposive sample of 22 GPs and 20 nurses working in primary care in two Swedish county councils were conducted. The interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed using qualitative content analysis.


The analysis resulted in three categories, attitude, knowledge, and circumstances, with two, two and four subcategories respectively. A professional attitude involves recognising the whole person; not only fragments of a person with a disease. Factual knowledge is acquired through special training and long professional experience. Tacit knowledge is about feelings and social competence. Circumstances can either be barriers or facilitators. A holistic view is a strong motivator and as such it is a facilitator. The way primary care is organised can be either a barrier or a facilitator and could influence the use of a holistic approach. Defined geographical districts and care teams facilitate a holistic view with house calls being essential, particularly for nurses. In preventive work and palliative care, a holistic view was stated to be specifically important. Consultations and communication with the patient were seen as important tools.


'Holistic view' is multidimensional, well implemented and very much alive among both GPs and DNs. The word holistic should really be spelt 'wholistic' to avoid confusion with complementary and alternative medicine. It was obvious that our participants were able to verbalise the meaning of a 'wholistic' view through narratives about their clinical, every day work. The possibility to implement a 'wholistic' perspective in their work with patients offers a strong motivation for GPs and DNs.