Time and general practice consultations : aspects of length, attendance and quality

Sammanfattning: The consultation is the GP’s form of work. How long a consultation should be, and what short/long consultations imply with regard to the satisfaction of patient and doctor has been much debated. The aim of this thesis was to study consultations with regard to content and time consumption in a short term and long term perspective. Three studies were carried out.1. Consultations with the members of a group of GPs were investigated, where patients and doctors separately assessed different aspects of the consultation, and their ratings were related to the real length of the consultations. The following questions were posed: Was there time enough? Could the patient tell the doctor about her/his problems? Were the problems physical or psychological? 2. Nurses at the primary care health centres were interviewed about their considerations in booking short or long appointments for the patients. 3. Patients who frequently attended one health centre during one year and consumed much time were studied. Quantitative and qualitative methods were used.The results of the first study (Papers I-III) show that the average length of the consultations was 21 minutes; there was considerable variation (ranging from 3 to 60 minutes). (About 600 consultations with 7 male doctors were registered in two batches). The doctors’ mean consultation length also varied widely, from 13-28 minutes. Consultations dealing with psychological problems were longer than those dealing with physical problems. Older patients had longer consultations than younger patients, and female patients had somewhat longer consultations than male patients. The patients were generally more satisfied with the consultations than the doctors were, and there were no clear affinities between long consultations and high satisfaction. Male patients and patients with physical problems mainly received short consultations, whereas patients with ”mixed" problems and older patients received long consultations.The single factors most decisive for the length of a consultation were ‘the doctor factor’, the character of the problem and the age of the patient. "Good” consultations (operational definition) were associated primarily with ‘the doctor factor’, and the real length of the consultations was less important.The interviews with ten experienced primary care nurses (Paper IV) showed that the nurses worked in two perspectives: in the ”immediate” perspective, appointments were booked according to rules which directly impacted the length of the visit, and in the "reflective" perspective, appointments were booked with a view to the quality of the work at the health centre and the long-term time consumption. Other factors of importance were the patient’s age and problem(s), the doctor’s experience and working style, and the current situation at the health centre.Frequent attenders (FAs) at one health centre (Paper V) were compared with a contrast group of matched patients (CPs). The FAs represented 1.7% of the population of the catchment area and made 15% of the visits. The FAs were a heterogeneous group where small boys, women of working age and pensioners of both sexes were overrepresented. The FAs had higher consultation frequency than the CPs during the year of investigation, but few remained FAs for longer periods. The FAs had more problems and more complex problems than the CPs. Complaints regarding the musculo-skeletal organs, and psychosocial problems were common among these patients, often in combination.The present work thus shows that longer consultations do not naturally imply higher patient satisfaction. Other factors than the time factor, in particular ‘the doctor factor’ seem to be more important. ‘The doctor factor’, the characteristics of the patients, the type of problem and the situation at the health centre also have a bearing on consultation length and time consumption in a short-term as well as long-term perspective. The implications of these factors and their relative importance are discussed, but further studies of certain issues, such as ‘the doctor factor’, are necessary.