Objectives: The importance of ‘whole person’ or ‘holistic’ care is widely recognised, particularly with an increasing prevalence of chronic multimorbidity internationally. This approach to care is a defining feature of general practice. However, its precise meaning remains ambiguous. We aimed to determine how the term ‘whole person’ care is understood by general practitioners (GPs), and whether it is synonymous with ‘[w]holistic’ and ‘biopsychosocial’ care.

Design: Systematic literature review.

Methods: MEDLINE, PubMed, EMBASE, CINAHL, PsycINFO, Web of Science, Proquest Dissertations and Theses, Science. gov (Health and Medicine database), Google Scholar and included studies’ reference lists were searched with an unlimited date range. Systematic or literature reviews, original research, theoretical articles or books/book chapters; specific to general practice; relevant to the research question; and published in English were included. Included literature was critically appraised, and data were extracted and analysed using thematic synthesis.

Results: Fifty publications were included from 4297 non-duplicate records retrieved. Six themes were identified: a multidimensional, integrated approach; the importance of the therapeutic relationship; acknowledging doctors’ humanity; recognising patients’ individual personhood; viewing health as more than absence of disease; and employing a range of treatment modalities. Whole person, biopsychosocial and holistic terminology were often used interchangeably, but were not synonymous.

Conclusions: Whole person, holistic and biopsychosocial terminology are primarily characterised by a multidimensional approach to care and incorporate additional elements described above. Whole person care probably represents the closest representation of the basis for general practice. Health systems aiming to provide whole person care need to address the challenge of integrating the care of other health professionals, and maintaining the patient–doctor relationship central to the themes identified. Further research is required to clarify the representativeness of the findings, and the relative importance GPs’ assign to each theme.

PROSPERO registration number: CRD42017058824.


research, systematic review, general practice, family practice, whole person, holistic care

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