Impact of Telephone Triage on Access to Primary Care for People Living with Multiple Long-Term Health Conditions

Rapid Evaluation

Published in: Health and Social Care Delivery Research, Volume 10, Issue 18 (July 2022). doi: 10.3310/UCCE5549

Posted on on August 12, 2022

by Catherine L. Saunders, Evangelos Gkousis


Telephone triage is a service innovation in which every patient asking to see a general practitioner or other primary care professional calls the general practice and usually speaks to a receptionist first, who records a few details. The patient is then telephoned back by the general practitioner/primary care professional. At the end of this return telephone call with the general practitioner/primary care professional, either the issue is resolved or a face-to-face appointment is arranged. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, telephone triage was designed and used in the UK as a tool for managing demand and to help general practitioners organise their workload. During the first quarter of 2020, much of general practice moved to a remote (largely telephone) triage approach to reduce practice footfall and minimise the risk of COVID-19 contact for patients and staff. Ensuring equitable care for people living with multiple long-term health conditions ('multimorbidity') is a health policy priority.


We aimed to evaluate whether or not the increased use of telephone triage would affect access to primary care differently for people living with multimorbidity than for other patients.


We used data from the English GP Patient Survey to explore the inequalities impact of introducing telephone triage in 154 general practices in England between 2011 and 2017. We looked particularly at the time taken to see or speak to a general practitioner for people with multiple long-term health conditions compared with other patients before the COVID-19 pandemic. We also used data from Understanding Society, a nationally representative survey of households from the UK, to explore inequalities in access to primary care during the COVID-19 pandemic (between April and November 2020).


Using data from before the COVID-19 pandemic, we found no evidence (p = 0.26) that the impact of a general practice moving to a telephone triage approach on the time taken to see or speak to a general practitioner was different for people with multimorbidity and for people without. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we found that people with multimorbidity were more likely than people with no long-term health conditions to have a problem for which they needed access to primary care. Among people who had a problem for which they would normally try to contact their general practitioner, there was no evidence of variation based on the number of conditions as to whether or not someone did try to contact their general practitioner; whether or not they were able to make an appointment; or whether they were offered a face-to-face, an online or an in-person appointment.


Survey non-response, limitations of the specific survey measures of primary care access that were used, and being unable to fully explore the quality of the telephone triage and consultations were all limitations.


These results highlight that, although people with multimorbidity have a greater need for primary care than people without multimorbidity, the overall impact for patients of changing to a telephone triage approach is larger than the inequalities in primary care access that exist between groups of patients.

Future work

Future evaluations of service innovations and the ongoing changes in primary care access should consider the inequalities impact of their introduction, including for people with multimorbidity.

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