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      The potential of alternatives to face-to-face consultation in general practice, and the impact on different patient groups: a mixed-methods case study

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          There is international interest in the potential role of different forms of communication technology to provide an alternative to face-to-face consultations in health care. There has been considerable rhetoric about the need for general practices to offer consultations by telephone, e-mail or internet video. However, little is understood about how, under what conditions, for which patients and in what ways these approaches may offer benefits to patients and practitioners in general practice.


          Our objectives were to review existing evidence about alternatives to face-to-face consultation; conduct a scoping exercise to identify the ways in which general practices currently provide these alternatives; recruit eight general practices as case studies for focused ethnographic research, exploring how practice context, patient characteristics, type of technology and the purpose of the consultation interact to determine the impact of these alternatives; and synthesise the findings in order to develop a website resource about the implementation of alternatives to face-to-face consultations and a framework for subsequent evaluation.


          Mixed-methods case study.


          General practices in England and Scotland with varied experience of implementing alternatives to face-to-face consultations.


          Patients and practice staff.


          Alternatives to face-to-face consultations include telephone consultations, e-mail, e-consultations and internet video.

          Main outcome measures

          How context influenced the implementation and impact of alternatives to the face-to-face consultation; the rationale for practices to introduce alternatives; the use of different forms of consultation by different patient groups; and the intended benefits/outcomes.

          Review methods

          The conceptual review used an approach informed by realist review, a method for synthesising research evidence regarding complex interventions.


          Alternatives to the face-to-face consultation are not in mainstream use in general practice, with low uptake in our case study practices. We identified the underlying rationales for the use of these alternatives and have shown that different stakeholders have different perspectives on what they hope to achieve through the use of alternatives to the face-to-face consultation. Through the observation of real-life use of different forms of alternative, we have a clearer understanding of how, under what circumstances and for which patients alternatives might have a range of intended benefits and potential unintended adverse consequences. We have also developed a framework for future evaluation.


          The low uptake of alternatives to the face-to-face consultation means that our research participants might be deemed to be early adopters. The case study approach provides an in-depth examination of a small number of sites, each using alternatives in different ways. The findings are therefore hypothesis-generating, rather than hypothesis-testing.


          The current low uptake of alternatives, lack of clarity about purpose and limited evidence of benefit may be at odds with current policy, which encourages the use of alternatives. We have highlighted key issues for practices and policy-makers to consider and have made recommendations about priorities for further research to be conducted, before or alongside the future roll-out of alternatives to the face-to-face consultation, such as telephone consulting, e-consultation, e-mail and video consulting.

          Future work

          We have synthesised our findings to develop a framework and recommendations about future evaluation of the use of alternatives to face-to-face consultations.

          Funding details

          The National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research programme.

          Related collections

          Most cited references 74

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          Making sense of qualitative data analysis: an introduction with illustrations from DIPEx (personal experiences of health and illness).

          This paper outlines an approach to analysing qualitative textual data from interviews and discusses how to ensure analytic procedures are appropriately rigorous. Qualitative data analysis should begin at an early stage in data collection and be highly systematic. It is important to identify issues that emerge during the data collection and analysis as well as those that the researcher may have anticipated (from reading or experience). Analysis is very time-consuming, but careful sampling, the collection of rich material and analytic depth mean that a relatively small number of cases can generate insights that apply well beyond the confines of the study. One particular approach to thematic analysis is introduced with examples from the DIPEx (personal experiences of health and illness) project, which collects video- and audio-taped interviews that are freely accessible through http://www.dipex.org. Qualitative analysis of patients' perspectives of illness can illuminate numerous issues that are important for medical education, some of which are unlikely to arise in the clinical encounter. Qualitative studies can also cover a much broader range of experiences - of both common and rare disease - than clinicians will see in practice. The DIPEx website is based on qualitative analysis of collections of interviews, illustrated with hundreds of video and audio clips, and is an innovative resource for medical education.
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            General practice and primary health care in Denmark.

            General practice is the corner stone of Danish primary health care. General practitioners (GPs) are similar to family physicians in the United States. On average, all Danes have 6.9 contacts per year with their GP (in-person, telephone, or E-mail consultation). General practice is characterized by 5 key components: (1) a list system, with an average of close to 1600 persons on the list of a typical GP; (2) the GP as gatekeeper and first-line provider in the sense that a referral from a GP is required for most office-based specialists and always for in- and outpatient hospital treatment; (3) an after-hours system staffed by GPs on a rota basis; (4) a mixed capitation and fee-for-service system; and (5) GPs are self-employed, working on contract for the public funder based on a national agreement that details not only services and reimbursement but also opening hours and required postgraduate education. The contract is (re)negotiated every 2 years. General practice is embedded in a universal tax-funded health care system in which GP and hospital services are free at the point of use. The current system has evolved over the past century and has shown an ability to adapt flexibly to new challenges. Practice units are fairly small: close to 2 GPs per unit plus nurses and secretaries. The units are fully computerized, that is, with computer-based patient records and submission of prescriptions digitally to pharmacies etc. Over the past few years a decrease in solo practices has been seen and is expected to accelerate, in part because of the GP age structure, with many GPs retiring and new GPs not wanting to practice alone. This latter workforce trend is pointing toward a new model with employed GPs, particularly in rural areas.
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              Electronic patient portals: evidence on health outcomes, satisfaction, efficiency, and attitudes: a systematic review.

              Patient portals tied to provider electronic health record (EHR) systems are increasingly popular. To systematically review the literature reporting the effect of patient portals on clinical care. PubMed and Web of Science searches from 1 January 1990 to 24 January 2013. Hypothesis-testing or quantitative studies of patient portals tethered to a provider EHR that addressed patient outcomes, satisfaction, adherence, efficiency, utilization, attitudes, and patient characteristics, as well as qualitative studies of barriers or facilitators, were included. Two reviewers independently extracted data and addressed discrepancies through consensus discussion. From 6508 titles, 14 randomized, controlled trials; 21 observational, hypothesis-testing studies; 5 quantitative, descriptive studies; and 6 qualitative studies were included. Evidence is mixed about the effect of portals on patient outcomes and satisfaction, although they may be more effective when used with case management. The effect of portals on utilization and efficiency is unclear, although patient race and ethnicity, education level or literacy, and degree of comorbid conditions may influence use. Limited data for most outcomes and an absence of reporting on organizational and provider context and implementation processes. Evidence that patient portals improve health outcomes, cost, or utilization is insufficient. Patient attitudes are generally positive, but more widespread use may require efforts to overcome racial, ethnic, and literacy barriers. Portals represent a new technology with benefits that are still unclear. Better understanding requires studies that include details about context, implementation factors, and cost.

                Author and article information

                Health Services and Delivery Research
                Health Serv Deliv Res
                National Institute for Health Research
                June 2018
                June 2018
                : 6
                : 20
                : 1-200
                [1 ]Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK
                [2 ]Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
                [3 ]Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
                [4 ]Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
                [5 ]Collaboration for Academic Primary Care (APEx), University of Exeter, Exeter, UK
                [6 ]Health and Social Sciences, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK
                © 2018


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