BACKGROUND The aim of the current study was to analyze the perceptions, knowledge, and practices of primary healthcare professionals in providing patient education to people with type 2 diabetes mellitus. METHODS A total of 23 health professionals working in primary healthcare units in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais State, Brazil, participated in a focus group in order to discuss their patient education practices and the challenges for effective patient education in diabetes self-management. RESULTS The results were categorized as follows: 1) lack of preparation and technical knowledge among the health professionals on some aspects of diabetes mellitus and the health professionals' patient education practices; 2) work conditions and organization; 3) issues related or attributed to the clientele themselves; and 4) diabetes care model. CONCLUSIONS This study highlights the importance of reorienting the patient education practices, health professionals' skills and work goals, and evaluation of the educational interventions, in order to establish strategies for health promotion and prevention and control of the disease. DESCRIPTORS Health Education; Prevention of Diabetes Mellitus; Primary Healthcare.