Background: The current model of general practitioner referral of patients to hospital specialists in the UK is sometimes associated with unnecessary duplication of investigations and treatments. We aimed to compare joint teleconsultations between general practitioners, specialists, and patients (virtual outreach) with standard outpatient referral.
Methods: Virtual outreach services were established in London and Shrewsbury. The general practitioners referred 3170 patients, of whom 2094 consented to participate in the study and were eligible for inclusion. 1051 patients were randomly assigned virtual outreach, and 1043 standard outpatient appointments. We followed up the patients for 6 months after their index consultation. The primary outcome measure was the offer of a follow-up outpatient appointment. Analysis was by intention to treat.
Findings: More patients in the virtual outreach group than the standard group were offered a follow-up appointment (502 [52%] vs 400 [41%], odds ratio 1.52 [95% CI 1.27-1.82], p<0.0001). Significant differences in effects were observed between the two sites (p=0.009) and across different specialties (p<0.0001). Virtual outreach increased the offers of follow-up appointments more in Shrewsbury than in London, and more in ear, nose, and throat surgery and orthopaedics than in the other specialties. Fewer tests and investigations were ordered in the virtual outreach group by an average of 0.79 per patient (0.37-1.21, p=0.0002). Patients' satisfaction (analysed per protocol) was greater after a virtual outreach consultation than after a standard outpatient consultation (mean difference 0.33 scale points [95% CI 0.23-0.43], p<0.0001), with no heterogeneity between specialties or sites.
Interpretation: The trial showed that allocation of patients to virtual outreach consultations is variably associated with increased offers of follow-up appointments according to site and specialty, but leads to significant increases in patients' satisfaction and substantial reductions in tests and investigations. Efficient operation of such services will require appropriate selection of patients, significant service reorganisation, and provision of logistical support.