Research Article

Organisation of telephone services and patients' access to doctors by telephone in general practice.

BMJ 1991; 302 doi: (Published 16 March 1991) Cite this as: BMJ 1991;302:629
  1. L Hallam
  1. Centre for Primary Care Research, University of Manchester.


    OBJECTIVES--To assess how accessible general practitioners are to patients by telephone and to examine the relations between organisation, number of lines, and number of patient-doctor calls. DESIGN--Postal survey of a random sample of general practitioners stratified by rural and urban practice areas, with differential sampling fractions. SETTING--General practices in England and Wales. SUBJECTS--2000 general practitioners, of whom 1459 (74%) responded. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES--Number of calls received by general practitioner a day, time reserved for patients' calls, and communication of availability of telephone contact. RESULTS--1421 general practitioners said that they accepted non-emergency calls from patients during the day and 285 reported reserving specific times of the day for this purpose. 848 estimated that they received four or fewer patient calls a day. The number of calls was significantly related to reserving time for calls (p less than 0.001), informing patients that the doctor was accessible by telephone (p less than 0.00001), and the number of periods when calls were accepted (p less than 0.00001). On average there were 3659 patients per incoming line; the number of patients per incoming line rose significantly as practice size increased (p less than 0.00001). CONCLUSIONS--The apparent willingness of general practitioners to accept calls was not reflected in the number of calls received. Reserving time, increasing periods of availability, and publicising telephone access increased the number of doctor-patient telephone contacts. Line congestion may be a problem, and impartial advice and guidance on telephone organisation and line requirements would be helpful.