OBJECTIVES: To examine whether the quality of the patient-physician relationship, assessed by the general practitioner (GP) and the patient, associates with GPs' use of gut feeling (GF) in cancer diagnosis.
DESIGN: Cross-sectional questionnaire survey of cancer patients and their GPs.
SETTING: Danish primary care.
PARTICIPANTS: Newly diagnosed cancer patients and their GPs. Patients completed a questionnaire and provided the name of the GP to whom they have presented their symptoms. The named GP subsequently received a questionnaire.
PRIMARY AND SECONDARY OUTCOME MEASURES: GPs' use of GF in the diagnostic process for the particular patient. GPs who answered that they used their GF 'to a high degree' or 'to a very high degree' were categorised as 'used their GF to a great extent'. GPs who answered that they used their GF 'to some degree', 'to a limited degree' or 'not at all' were categorised as 'limited or no use of GF'.
RESULTS: GPs were less likely to use GF when they assessed relational aspects of the patient encounter as difficult compared with less difficult (OR=0.67; 95% CI 0.46 to 0.97). The physician-reported level of empathy was positively associated with use of GF (OR=2.60; 95% CI 1.60 to 4.22). The lower use of GF in difficult encounters was not modified by level of empathy.
CONCLUSIONS: Experiencing relational aspects of patient encounter as difficult acted as a barrier for the use of GF in cancer diagnosis. Although physician-rated empathy increased use of GF, high empathy did not dissolve the low use of GF in difficult encounters. As diagnosis of cancer is a key challenge in primary care, it is important that GPs are aware that the sensitivity of cancer-related GF is compromised by a difficult patient-physician relationship.