Cover: Outpatient Services and Primary Care

Outpatient Services and Primary Care

Scoping Review, Substudies and International Comparisons

Published in: Health Services and Delivery Research, v. 4, no. 15, May 2016, p. 1-322

Posted on May 11, 2016

by Eleanor Winpenny, Celine Miani, Emma Pitchforth, Sarah Ball, Ellen Nolte, Sarah King, Joanne Greenhalgh, Martin Roland


This study updates a previous scoping review published by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in 2006 (Roland M, McDonald R, Sibbald B. Outpatient Services and Primary Care: A Scoping Review of Research Into Strategies For Improving Outpatient Effectiveness and Efficiency. Southampton: NIHR Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre; 2006) and focuses on strategies to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of outpatient services.

Findings from the Scoping Review

Evidence from the scoping review suggests that, with appropriate safeguards, training and support, substantial parts of care given in outpatient clinics can be transferred to primary care. This includes additional evidence since our 2006 review which supports general practitioner (GP) follow-up as an alternative to outpatient follow-up appointments, primary medical care of chronic conditions and minor surgery in primary care. Relocating specialists to primary care settings is popular with patients, and increased joint working between specialists and GPs, as suggested in the NHS Five Year Forward View, can be of substantial educational value. However, for these approaches there is very limited information on cost-effectiveness; we do not know whether they increase or reduce overall demand and whether the new models cost more or less than traditional approaches. One promising development is the increasing use of e-mail between GPs and specialists, with some studies suggesting that better communication (including the transmission of results and images) could substantially reduce the need for some referrals.

Findings from the Substudies

Because of the limited literature on some areas, we conducted a number of substudies in England. The first was of referral management centres, which have been established to triage and, potentially, divert referrals away from hospitals. These centres encounter practical and administrative challenges and have difficulty getting buy-in from local clinicians. Their effectiveness is uncertain, as is the effect of schemes which provide systematic review of referrals within GP practices. However, the latter appear to have more positive educational value, as shown in our second substudy. We also studied consultants who held contracts with community-based organisations rather than with hospital trusts. Although these posts offer opportunities in terms of breaking down artificial and unhelpful primary–secondary care barriers, they may be constrained by their idiosyncratic nature, a lack of clarity around roles, challenges to professional identity and a lack of opportunities for professional development. Finally, we examined the work done by other countries to reform activity at the primary–secondary care interface. Common approaches included the use of financial mechanisms and incentives, the transfer of work to primary care, the relocation of specialists and the use of guidelines and protocols. With the possible exception of financial incentives, the lack of robust evidence on the effect of these approaches and the contexts in which they were introduced limits the lessons that can be drawn for the English NHS.


For many conditions, high-quality care in the community can be provided and is popular with patients. There is little conclusive evidence on the cost-effectiveness of the provision of more care in the community. In developing new models of care for the NHS, it should not be assumed that community-based care will be cheaper than conventional hospital-based care. Possible reasons care in the community may be more expensive include supply-induced demand and addressing unmet need through new forms of care and through loss of efficiency gained from concentrating services in hospitals. Evidence from this study suggests that further shifts of care into the community can be justified only if (a) high value is given to patient convenience in relation to NHS costs or (b) community care can be provided in a way that reduces overall health-care costs. However, reconfigurations of services are often introduced without adequate evaluation and it is important that new NHS initiatives should collect data to show whether or not they have added value, and improved quality and patient and staff experience.

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