Phone consultations unlikely to reduce GP workloads, says study

Patients who receive telephone consultations from their GP or a nurse are more likely to need care in the month after their phone call than those who see a doctor face-to-face, a study suggests.

Experts found that people who requested a same-day appointment but were instead offered telephone triage from a GP were 33 per cent more likely to seek help in the 28 days after the phone call.

As demand for appointments to see family doctors has soared, telephone triage has become increasingly popular in general practice, the authors said. This means patients are called by a doctor or nurse who can either deal with the problem over the phone, or decide as and when a patient needs to be seen.

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But researchers found that such consultations may not be the most efficient use of a doctor’s time. Their study, published in The Lancet, found that they did not reduce workload but just saw it “redistributed” from face-to-face consultations to telephone consultations.

Forty-two practices took part in the study and either offered their patients usual care, telephone triage with a GP or a nurse-led computer supported consultation. Almost 21,000 patients who were seeking same-day appointments were included in the study.

The researchers, led by experts from the University of Exeter, found that when compared with usual care, GP triage was associated with patients being 33 per cent more likely to need care in the 28 days following the phone call compared to standard care.

And nurse triage was associated with a 48 per cent increase, they said. They also found that GP triage was associated with a 38 per cent increased rate of workload for family doctors, the rate of face-to-face contacts reduced by 39 per cent.