Objective: To provide a description of country general practice in Australia, and to determine the extent to which country and metropolitan general practice differ in terms of the characteristics of the practitioners, the morbidity managed, treatments provided and the availability of support services.
Method: A survey requiring the recording of details of all direct and indirect patient encounters on encounter forms by a sample of general practitioners (GPs). Each GP recorded for two one-week periods separated by an interval of six months, between October 1990 and October 1991. The recording weeks were spread as evenly as possible throughout the year.
Sample: Participants were drawn from a list of medical practitioners in Queensland, NSW and Victoria who provided more than 1500 general practice Medicare items of service during the previous year. The sample was stratified within States by population of postcode, into metropolitan areas and three country strata: "small country towns" (population less than 5000); "medium country towns" (5000-15,000); and "large country towns" (more than 15,000). The total country sample is referred to as "country areas". Planned sample size was 180 country GPs (20 in each stratum in each State) and 60 metropolitan GPs (20 in each of the three State capital cities). The final data set was weighted to be representative of the distribution of the source population.
Data collection: The variables studied included: GP characteristics; practice isolation factors; patient age, sex and status to the practice; patient reasons for encounter (up to three per encounter); problems managed (up to four); drugs prescribed and other treatments provided (up to four per problem); tests and investigations ordered and referrals made at these encounters; and planned follow-up. Data were centrally coded. Participation rate: The final sample of 231 GPs (177 country and 54 metropolitan) recorded information during 435 recording weeks (336 country and 99 metropolitan). These practitioners represented 50.7% of those contacted and available, the response rate being better in country (57.5%) than in metropolitan (36.5%) areas. A practice profile questionnaire which included questions regarding the doctor and the practice was completed by 97.4% of participants, while a questionnaire on distance from support services was completed by 93.8% of country participants. The final weighted data set included 51,741 encounters with country GPs and 11,351 with metropolitan GPs.
Results: The general practitioners: Country GPs were less likely to be female or to conduct consultations in a language other than English, and were more likely to do some work on a salaried or sessional basis. GPs from small country towns were older, more likely to be in solo practice, and more likely to belong to a professional organisation. "Remoteness" of towns: Nearly all towns were within 25 km of a hospital, but far fewer small and medium country towns were within 50 km of a base hospital than large country towns. X-ray services were almost universally available within 50 km, and with the exception of small country towns so were pathology services. Access to medical specialists and to a lesser degree other health professionals decreased with population size--patients in 30% of small towns had to travel over 100 km to see many specialists and some health professionals. Self-reported procedural work: GPs in small and medium country towns were more likely than those in large towns to report performing procedural work, the largest difference being in the area of em