BACKGROUND: Primary care practitioners are encouraged to identify unmet need in older people, but the best mechanisms for doing this are not known. OBJECTIVE: To identify common unmet needs, as perceived by older people and professionals, that could be enquired about during routine encounters in primary care. METHODS: This was a nominal group technique qualitative study conducted with older people in London and primary care professionals working in the same localities. Subjects were seven nominal groups of 5-12 participants each, four with culturally diverse user groups recruited through local community and voluntary sector resources and three with primary care professionals (GPs and nurses). Group interviews were conducted with two facilitators and one observer recording field notes and were tape-recorded and transcribed for data collection. RESULTS: Older people and professionals share some ideas about unmet need, but there are important differences. Older people may emphasize their autonomy and right to make choices, while professionals may use epidemiological knowledge to justify their own agendas, which may be considered intrusive. Nominal groups can be useful tools for capturing perspectives of different groups, but prioritization of themes identified by nominal groups may not always be feasible. CONCLUSIONS: Unmet need is a complex concept, with different interpretations according to the perspective taken. Professionals relying on epidemiological knowledge to guide their enquiries about unmet needs in older patients may find that the needs that they identify are not perceived as unmet, or even meetable, by their patients.
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