BACKGROUND : In primary care, patients present with multimorbidity and a wide spectrum of undifferentiated illnesses, which makes the application of evidence-based practice (EBP) principles more challenging than in other practice contexts. OBJECTIVE : The goal of this study was to explore the experiences and understanding of family physicians (FP) in primary care with regard to EBP and the implementation of evidence-based guidelines. METHODS : The study was conducted in Cape Town primary care facilities and South African university departments of Family Medicine. METHODS : For this phenomenological, qualitative study, 27 purposefully selected FPs from three groups were interviewed: senior academic FPs; local FPs in public-sector practice; and local FPs in private-sector practice. Data were analysed using the framework method with the assistance of ATLAS.ti, version 6.1. RESULTS : Guideline development should be a more inclusive process that incorporates more evidence from primary care. Contextualisation should happen at an organisational level and may include adaptation as well as the development of practical or integrated tools. Organisations should ensure synergy between corporate and clinical governance activities. Dissemination should ensure that all practitioners are aware of and know how to access guidelines. Implementation should include training that is interactive and recognises individual practitioners' readiness to change, as well as local barriers. Quality improvement cycles may reinforce implementation and provide feedback on the process. CONCLUSIONS : Evidence-based practice is currently limited in its capacity to inform primary care. The conceptual framework provided illustrates the key steps in guideline development, contextualisation, dissemination, implementation and evaluation, as well as the interconnections between steps and barriers or enablers to progress. The framework may be useful for policymakers, health care managers and practitioners in similar settings.