BACKGROUND: Telephone triage is increasingly used to manage workload in primary care; however, supporting evidence for this approach is scarce. We aimed to assess the effectiveness and cost consequences of general practitioner-(GP)-led and nurse-led telephone triage compared with usual care for patients seeking same-day consultations in primary care.
METHODS: We did a pragmatic, cluster-randomised controlled trial and economic evaluation between March 1, 2011, and March 31, 2013, at 42 practices in four centres in the UK. Practices were randomly assigned (1:1:1), via a computer-generated randomisation sequence minimised for geographical location, practice deprivation, and practice list size, to either GP-led triage, nurse-led computer-supported triage, or usual care. We included patients who telephoned the practice seeking a same-day face-to-face consultation with a GP. Allocations were concealed from practices until after they had agreed to participate and a stochastic element was included within the minimisation algorithm to maintain concealment. Patients, clinicians, and researchers were not masked to allocation, but practice assignment was concealed from the trial statistician. The primary outcome was primary care workload (patient contacts, including those attending accident and emergency departments) in the 28 days after the first same-day request. Analyses were by intention to treat and per protocol. This trial was registered with the ISRCTN register, number ISRCTN20687662.
FINDINGS: We randomly assigned 42 practices to GP triage (n=13), nurse triage (n=15), or usual care (n=14), and 20 990 patients (n=6695 vs 7012 vs 7283) were randomly assigned, of whom 16 211 (77%) patients provided primary outcome data (n=5171 vs 5468 vs 5572). GP triage was associated with a 33% increase in the mean number of contacts per person over 28 days compared with usual care (2·65 [SD 1·74] vs 1·91 [1·43]; rate ratio [RR] 1·33, 95% CI 1·30-1·36), and nurse triage with a 48% increase (2·81 [SD 1·68]; RR 1·48, 95% CI 1·44-1·52). Eight patients died within 7 days of the index request: five in the GP-triage group, two in the nurse-triage group, and one in the usual-care group; however, these deaths were not associated with the trial group or procedures. Although triage interventions were associated with increased contacts, estimated costs over 28 days were similar between all three groups (roughly £75 per patient).
INTERPRETATION: Introduction of telephone triage delivered by a GP or nurse was associated with an increase in the number of primary care contacts in the 28 days after a patient's request for a same-day GP consultation, with similar costs to those of usual care. Telephone triage might be useful in aiding the delivery of primary care. The whole-system implications should be assessed when introduction of such a system is considered.
FUNDING: Health Technology Assessment Programme UK National Institute for Health Research.