Objectives: To determine the relative importance of factors that influence patient choice in the booking of general practice appointments for two health problems.
Methods: Two discrete choice experiments incorporated into a survey of general practice patients and qualitative methods to support survey development.
Results: An overall response of 94% (1052/1123) was achieved. Factors influencing the average respondent's choice of appointment, in order of importance, were: seeing a doctor of choice; booking at a convenient time of day; seeing any available doctor; and having an appointment sooner rather than later (acute, low worry condition). This finding was the same for an ongoing, high worry condition but in addition the duration of the appointment was also of (small) value. Patients traded off speed of access for more convenient appointment times (a willingness to wait an extra 2.5-3 days longer to get a convenient time slot for an acute low worry/ongoing, high worry condition, respectively). However, contrary to expectation, patients were willing to trade off speed of access for continuity of care (e.g. willingness to wait five days longer to see the doctor of their choice for an acute, low worry condition). Preferences varied by a person's gender, work and carer status.
Conclusions: Patients hold strong preferences for the way general practice appointment systems are managed. Contrary to current policy on improving access to primary care patients value a more complex mix of factors than fast access at all costs. It is important that policy-makers and practices take note of these preferences.