The idea of “telephone first” has been promoted by some commercial companies.
A study, reported in The BMJ, has found that it increased doctor workload – although it significantly reduced the number of face to face consultations.
The researchers compared the 147 English practices that have adopted the system with about 200 other practices.
They found that telephone first quadrupled the number of phone calls made by doctors – but reduced face to face consultations by about a third.
They also found that about half the patients who were telephoned still needed to be seen in person – and that there seemed to be an increase in emergency admissions from the telephone first practices.
The study found big variations among practices in the effectiveness of the process. In some it seemed to have successfully reduced workload.
Researcher Professor Martin Roland, from Cambridge University, UK, and his fellow researchers said the study showed that many patient inquiries could be handled over the phone.
They added that it “does not suit all patients or practices and is not a panacea for meeting demand.”
They say there was “no evidence to support claims that the approach would, on average, save costs or reduce use of secondary care.”
Royal College of GPs chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: “Telephone consultations can be convenient – and they certainly can help direct patients to the most appropriate care for their health needs – but as this research has shown they don’t necessarily reduce GP workload in the end as ten minutes are ten minutes whether spent speaking to patients over the phone or face-to-face.
“And, if as a result of the phone conversation follow-up action is needed for that patient, then this actually may increase the GP’s workload.”