Background: Patients visiting their GPs exceptionally often (frequent attenders, FAs) have high rates of somatic disease, emotional distress, psychiatric illnesses and social problems and require a disproportionate amount of their GPs' time.
Objectives: To summarize which types of FA have been studied and what the effects of interventions were on quality of life (QoL), symptom severity of underlying illness(es) and consultation frequency. To discover when patients are considered FAs.
Methods: Systematic review of RCTs using a comprehensive search (MEDLINE, PsycINFO, CINAHL and EMBASE, from 1980 to August 2015) and no language restrictions. Two investigators extracted data. Results were summarized qualitatively.
Results: We included 17 RCTs. Heterogeneity at the level of populations, interventions and outcomes precluded statistical pooling. In-depth analysis by GPs assessing a patient's reasons for frequent attendance decreased consultation frequency by four to six per year. A small effect on symptom severity was noted in depressed FAs, although this finding was not replicated in a recent trial. Multi-component therapy and medication in FAs with medically unexplained symptoms (MUS) improved QoL (SF36 odds ratio: 1.92; 95%CI: 1.08-3.40) and morbidity (CES-D 3.17; 95%CI: 1.27-5.08).
Conclusion: RCTs on intervention effects in frequent attenders to primary care used different patient populations, interventions, comparators and outcome measures. Consistent evidence on the effects of particular interventions in specific patient domains is lacking. A tailored approach based on in-depth analysis among GPs of potential reasons for frequent attendance may decrease consultation frequency. Research involving the screening and treating for FAs with MUS may be useful in future trials.
Keywords: Primary healthcare; health services misuse; quality of life; randomized controlled trials; somatoform disorders; systematic review.