Background: There is variation in the decisions made by telephone assessment nurses using computerised decision support software (CDSS). Variation in nurses' attitudes to risk has been identified as a possible explanatory factor. This study was undertaken to explore the effect of nurses' attitudes to risk on the decisions they make when using CDSS. The setting was NHS 24 which is a nationwide telephone assessment service in Scotland in which nurses assess health problems, mainly on behalf of out-of-hours general practice, and triage calls to self care, a service at a later date, or immediate contact with a service.
Methods: All NHS 24 nurses were asked to complete a questionnaire about their background and attitudes to risk. Routine data on the decisions made by these nurses was obtained for a six month period in 2005. Multilevel modelling was used to measure the effect of nurses' risk attitudes on the proportion of calls they sent to self care rather than to services.
Results: The response rate to the questionnaire was 57% (265/464). 231,112 calls were matched to 211 of these nurses. 16% (36,342/231,112) of calls were sent to self care, varying three fold between the top and bottom deciles of nurses. Fifteen risk attitude variables were tested, including items on attitudes to risk in clinical decision-making. Attitudes to risk varied greatly between nurses, for example 27% (71/262) of nurses strongly agreed that an NHS 24 nurse "must not take any risks with physical illness" while 17% (45/262) disagreed. After case-mix adjustment, there was some evidence that nurses' attitudes to risk affected decisions but this was inconsistent and unconvincing.
Conclusion: Much of the variation in decision-making by nurses using CDSS remained unexplained. There was no convincing evidence that nurses' attitudes to risk affected the decisions made. This may have been due to the limitations of the instrument used to measure risk attitude.