Background: Patients in need of acute health care do not always contact the most suitable health care service provider. Contacting out-of-hours primary care for an urgent problem may delay care, whereas contacting emergency medical services for a non-urgent problem could ultimately affect patient safety. More insight into patient motives for contacting a specific health care provider may help optimise patient flows. This study aims to explore patient motives for contacting out-of-hours primary care and the emergency medical services in Denmark.
Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional observational study by sending a questionnaire to patients contacting out-of-hours primary care and emergency medical services, both of which can be directly contacted by patients, in two of five Danish regions in 2015. As we aimed to focus on the first access point, the emergency department was not included. The questionnaire included items on patient characteristics, health problem and 26 pre-defined motives. Descriptive analyses of patient characteristics and motives were conducted, stratified by the two health care service providers. Factors associated with contacting each of the two service providers were explored in a modified Poisson regression analysis, and adjusted risk ratios were calculated.
Results: Three key motives for contacting the two service providers were identified: 'unpleasant symptoms', 'perceived need for prompt action' and 'perceived most suitable health care provider'. Other important motives were 'need arose outside office hours' and 'wanted to talk to a physician' (out-of-hours primary care) and 'expected need for ambulance' and 'worried' (emergency medical services). Higher probability of contacting the emergency medical services versus out-of-hours primary care was seen for most motives relating to own assessment and expectations, previous experience and knowledge, and own needs and wishes. Lower probability was seen for most motives relating to perceived barriers and benefits.
Conclusions: Patient motives for contacting the two health care service providers were partly overlapping. The study contributes with new knowledge on the complex decision-making process of patients in need of acute health care. This knowledge could help optimise existing health care services, such as patient safety and the service level, without increasing health care costs.
Keywords: After-hours care; Emergency medical services; Emergency medicine; Help-seeking behaviour; Motivation; Patient safety; Primary health care.