Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2013: Aggravations

Phoning the patient’s general practitioner

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 13 December 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7048
  1. Jessica Webb, cardiology specialist registrar1,
  2. David E Ward, cardiology consultant1
  1. 1St George’s Hospital, London SW17 0QT, UK
  1. Correspondence to: J Webb jesswebb{at}
  • Accepted 10 November 2013

Jessica Webb and David Ward investigated how long it takes for hospital doctors to speak to patients’ general practitioners by telephone

The General Medical Council recognises the importance of effective communication and recommends that we should work collaboratively with colleagues to maintain or improve care of patients, as stated in Good Medical Practice.1 Effective communication between primary and secondary care is pivotal to ensure the best outcome for patients, relieving their anxiety and confusion, and preventing prescribing errors. General practice has led the way in improving information technology facilities in the NHS and computerising practices,2 although the telephone remains the main route of non-elective contact between hospital doctors and general practitioners (GPs). Communication by letter has delays and can cause confusion, with letters overlapping or getting lost. GPs ask their patients and the community for feedback on their experiences of calling the surgery and how long they had to wait.3 To date, no studies have looked at how long hospital doctors wait to speak to a GP.


The aim of this study was to establish how long it takes for doctors to speak to patients’ GPs. One person phoned the GPs of 25 patients on our main cardiology ward over three consecutive days in early September between 1000 and 1230 and between 1400 and 1600. A stop clock was used to record the time taken for the phone to be answered and whether the receptionist was able to put the call directly through to the GP, a virtual appointment was made, or a message was left with a mobile phone number and if and when the call was returned. All the receptionists were given the same information: that the call was to update the GP on the patient’s condition.


Two sets of patients had the same GP, so the surgeries were contacted only once. The table shows the outcomes of the 23 phone calls, grouped from “best” to “worst.” The mean time taken for our calls to be answered by a receptionist was 47 seconds. We spoke to 14 GPs: seven receptionists put our call straight through to the correct GP (in some cases this was in 25 seconds), and seven of eight GPs responded to our message by phoning the mobile number that was left with the receptionist. Three virtual appointments were made, and times were given that the GP would call; these were cancelled immediately. We did not manage to speak to five surgeries, despite phoning them twice, and one GP did not return our call (called on the first day of the study).

Outcomes of telephone calls to general practitioner (GP) surgeries

View this table:


In total, we spoke to 14 GPs and were given three virtual appointments. We felt that these surgeries excelled; GPs obviously spend a considerable amount of time in clinic and out of the surgeries, so expecting a GP to be available immediately for a phone call from a hospital is unrealistic. We were unable to speak to six GPs over the three day study. Clearly, if the call had been crucially important we would have phoned again, and the GP who did not phone back may not have prioritised an “update” about a patient in hospital. We could not speak to five surgeries that had recorded messages with no opportunity to leave a message. Many reasons exist why surgeries may have recorded messages during the day, and more data collection is needed to understand the significance of this. One surgery had a number that was out of service, which was later found to be repaired.

On speaking to the GPs, we told them that this was an exercise to establish how easily hospital doctors can speak to GPs and not to update them on the patient’s condition. They all felt that communication could be improved by introducing an email service, and some of them mentioned the other side to this equation—how difficult it can be for GPs to speak to hospital doctors.


Despite limitations, these results are important as they show that most general practices offer excellent telephone communication but that some are more challenging. We believe that relying on phone calls is archaic and that these results should stimulate a larger, more detailed study examining how much we rely on phone calls between primary and secondary care and how electronic communication with nominated email contacts could improve outcomes. We believe that more should be done to ensure safe and effective communication across the board to allow the best practice for all patients.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7048


  • Competing interests: We have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none.

  • Provenance: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.


View Abstract