Practice variation in the use of tests in UK primary care: a retrospective analysis of 16 million tests performed over 3.3 million patient years in 2015/16

BMC Med. 2018 Dec 20;16(1):229. doi: 10.1186/s12916-018-1217-1.


Background: The UK's National Health Service (NHS) is currently subject to unprecedented financial strain. The identification of unnecessary healthcare resource use has been suggested to reduce spending. However, there is little very research quantifying wasteful test use, despite the £3 billion annual expenditure. Geographical variation has been suggested as one metric in which to quantify inappropriate use. We set out to identify tests ordered from UK primary care that are subject to the greatest between-practice variation in their use.

Methods: We used data from 444 general practices within the Clinical Practice Research Datalink to calculate a coefficient of variation (CoV) for the ordering of 44 specific tests from UK general practices. The coefficient of variation was calculated after adjusting for differences between practice populations. We also determined the tests that had both a higher-than-average CoV and a higher-than-average rate of use.

Results: In total, 16,496,218 tests were ordered for 4,078,091 patients over 3,311,050 person-years from April 1, 2015, to March 31, 2016. The tests subject to the greatest variation were drug monitoring 158% (95%CI 153 to 163%), urine microalbumin (52% (95%CI 49.9 to 53.2%)), pelvic CT (51% (95%CI 50 to 53%)) and Pap smear (49% (95%CI 48 to 51%). Seven tests were classified as high variability and high rate (clotting, vitamin D, urine albumin, prostate-specific antigen (PSA), bone profile, urine MCS and C-reactive protein (CRP)).

Conclusions: There are wide variations in the use of common tests, which is unlikely to be explained by clinical indications. Since £3 billion annually are spent on tests, this represents considerable variation in the use of resources and inefficient management in the NHS. Our results can be of value to policy makers, researchers, patients and clinicians as the NHS strives towards identifying overuse and underuse of tests.

Keywords: General practice; Health policy; Imaging; Overuse; Primary care; Test use.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine / economics
  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Policy
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • National Health Programs
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'* / economics
  • Primary Health Care* / economics
  • Retrospective Studies
  • United Kingdom