Management of out-of-hours calls by a general practice cooperative: a geographical analysis of telephone access and consultation

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Background. Centralization of urgent care services may reduce access for patients living further away from primary care centres (PCCs). Telephone-based access is often proposed to remedy this.

Objective. To examine the effect of distance and rurality on the doctor’s decision to manage the call by telephone or face-to-face.

Methods. Geographical analysis of routine data on calls to an out-of-hours cooperative, including logistic regression to examine the effects of distance and rurality on triage decisions.

Results. For distances >6 km, the likelihood of receiving telephone advice only increased progressively with increasing distance from the PCC (Model 1). However, for those patients seen face-to-face, overall, there was increased likelihood of receiving a home visit (compared with PCC attendance) with increasing distance (Model 2).

Conclusions. Patients experience differences in how their call to out-of-hours services is managed depending on where they live. Telephone access and consultation can be used to overcome geographical barriers but do not necessarily make access geographically equitable. Those who live furthest away are more likely to receive telephone advice rather than being seen face-to-face, but paradoxically, those who do get a home visit are more likely to live at a greater distance from the PCC. These findings present important challenges to proposals to integrate urgent care services and increase telephone-based provision and suggest that attention should be given to configuring services to ensure geographical equity of access, regardless of how far away people live from health services.

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