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Background Detection of psychiatric disorder in primary care is a complex issue. Distinctions between ‘normal’ emotional distress and psychiatric disorder depend on how disorder is conceptualized. Our aim was to explore two different conceptualizations by examining patients' scores on one-dimensional depression measures and scores on the Four Dimensional Symptom Questionnaire (4DSQ), a measure that uniquely has separate dimensions for general distress and depressive disorder. Methods This was a cross sectional study of 487 primary care patients attending general clinics in Hampshire, UK. Patients completed the 4DSQ, Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9), General Health Questionnaire-12 (GHQ-12) and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) whilst in the waiting room. Results The 4DSQ classified 26% (126/485) of patients as having heightened distress levels and 8% (38/468) as possible cases of depressive disorder. Casesness was consistently higher across the one-dimensional measures (PHQ-9: 16%, GHQ-12: 28%, HADS-D: 13%). Of those patients deemed possible cases by the PHQ-9 (≥10), the 4DSQ classified 91% (71/78) as having heightened distress and 44% (32/72) as possible cases of depressive disorder. Limitations The sample was predominately older and white, which may limit generalizability of the findings to more diverse patient groups. There are limits to self-report measures in the assessment of complex diagnostic issues. Conclusions Inclusion of a distinct general distress dimension alongside a dimension focusing on specific depression symptomatology lowered the number of primary care patients classified as possible cases of disorder. This view of symptoms may have implications for the targeting of existing treatments, and may be useful in guiding the development of novel self-management interventions.

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