Telephone consulting in primary care: a triangulated qualitative study of patients and providers

Brian McKinstry, Philip Watson, Hilary Pinnock, David Heaney, Aziz Sheikh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review



Internationally, there is increasing use of telephone consultations, particularly for triaging requests for acute care. However, little is known about how this mode of consulting differs from face-to-face encounters.


To understand patient and healthcare-staff perspectives on how telephone consulting differs from face-to-face consulting in terms of content, quality, and safety, and how it can be most appropriately incorporated into routine health care.

Design of study

Focus groups triangulated by a national questionnaire.


Primary care in urban and rural Scotland.


Fifteen focus groups (n = 91) were conducted with GPs, nurses, administrative staff, and patients, purposively sampled to attain a maxim urn-variation sample. Findings were triangulated by a national questionnaire.


Telephone consulting evolved in urban areas mainly to manage demand, while in rural areas it developed to overcome geographical problems and maintain continuity of care for patients. While telephone consulting was generally seen to provide improved access, clinicians expressed strong concerns about safety potentially being compromised, largely as a result of lack of formal and informal examination. Concerns were, to an extent, allayed when clinicians and patients knew each other well.


Used appropriately, telephone consulting enhances access to health care, aids continuity, and saves time and travelling for patients. The current emphasis on use for acute triage, however, worded clinicians and patients. Given these findings, and until the safe use of telephone triage is fully understood and agreed upon by stakeholders, policymakers and clinicians should consider using the telephone primarily for managing follow-up appointments when diagnostic assessment has already been undertaken.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)433-440
Number of pages8
JournalBritish Journal of General Practice
Issue number563
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2009


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