Background: Over the last five years, Dutch provision of out-of-hours primary health care has shifted from practice-based services towards large-scale general practitioner (GP) cooperatives. Only few population-based studies have been performed to assess the out-of-hours demand for GP and emergency care, including the referral patterns to the Accident and Emergency Department (AED) by GPs and ambulance services.
Method: During two four-month periods (five-year interval), a prospective cross-sectional study was performed for a Dutch population of 62,000 people. Data were collected on all patient contacts with one GP cooperative and three AEDs bordering the region.
Results: Overall, GPs handled 88% of all out-of-hours contacts (275/1000 inhabitants/year), while the AED dealt with the remaining 12% of contacts (38/1000 inhabitants/year). Within the AED, the self-referrals represented a substantial number of contacts (43%), although within the total out-of-hours demand they only represented 5% of all contacts. Self-referrals were predominantly young adult males presenting with an injury, nineteen percent of whom had a fracture. Compared to self-referrals, patients who were referred by the GP or brought in by the ambulance services were generally older and were more frequently admitted for both injury and non-injury (p < 0.01 for all differences).
Conclusion: The GP cooperative deals with the large majority of out-of-hours problems presented. Within the total demand, self-referrals constitute a stable, yet small group of patients, many of whom seem to have made a reasonable choice to attend the AED. The GPs and the ambulance services appear to be effectively selecting the problems that are presented to the AED.