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BACKGROUND: General practitioners (GPs) should be able to detect psychological distress in their patients. However, there is much evidence of underperformance in this area. The principle of clinical audit is the identification of underperformance and amelioration of its causes, but there appear to be few evaluated models of audit in this area of clinical practice. AIM: To evaluate the feasibility of auditing GPs' performance as detectors of psychological distress. Specific objectives were to test a model of the audit cycle in the detection of psychological distress by GPs; to research GP perceptions of prior audit activity in this area and the validity of the instruments used to measure GP performance; and to research GP perceptions of the value of this specific approach to the audit of their performance and the particular value of different aspects of the model in terms of its impact on clinician behaviour. METHOD: Prospective controlled study of an audit cycle of GP detection of psychological distress. Nineteen GP principals used a self-directed educational intervention involving measurement of their performance, followed by data feedback and review of selected videotaped consultations. Qualitative data on GP views of audit in this area of clinical activity were collected before and after the quantitative data collection. RESULTS: The study shows that the GP cohort had not previously considered auditing their performance as detectors of psychological distress. They found the instruments of measurement and the model of audit acceptable. However, they also suggested modifications that might be educationally more effective and make the audit more practical. These included smaller patient numbers and more peer contact. The implications of the study for a definitive model of audit in this area are discussed. CONCLUSION: Effective audit of GP performance in detection of psychological distress is possible using validated instruments, and GP performance can be improved by educational intervention. GPs in this study appear more motivated by individual case studies and reflection through video analysis on undiagnosed patients than by quantitative data feedback on their performance. This study therefore supports other evidence that clinical audit has most impact when quantitative data is coupled with clinical examples derived from patient review.