BACKGROUND: The ways that GPs treat depressed patients have been criticized in a number of studies. OBJECTIVE: To explore factors that shape how GPs work with depressed patients. METHODS: Seventeen GPs from the county of Orebro, Sweden participated in a qualitative semi-structured interview study. GPs' conceptions of factors shaping their way of working with depressed patients, especially continuing medical education (CME), commercial information, inter-collegial support, collaboration with psychiatrists and GPs' gender were recorded. RESULTS: Private life experiences as well as professional experiences from family medicine were more often stressed as formative factors than university education and training in psychiatry. Groups of GPs discussisng the doctor-patient relationship set out from real cases (Balint groups) and CME groups were regarded as good forms of education. Most GPs considered company-sponsored lectures valuable. Commercial drug information was seen as more powerful than non-commercial information and GPs wished for more non-commercial information. Collaboration with psychiatry consultants was perceived as insufficient, and GPs felt a need for more inter-collegial support. Traditional female qualities were generally seen as advantageous in the work with depressed patients. CONCLUSIONS: Many GPs consider personal qualities and experiences, including those of gender, to be more influential than academic education and professional literature. This reflects a preference for individual 'tacit knowledge'. Although tacit knowledge is indispensable in consultations, the low priority given to theoretical CME may make GPs less inclined to make optimal use of different therapeutic alternatives and also less critical of commercial marketing. CME on depression should start with GPs' individual tacit knowledge and assume a more independent stance from the drug industry.