Objectives: To document the outcomes of a telephone coverage system and identify patient characteristics that may predict these outcomes.
Design: Telephone survey.
Setting: An academic outpatient medical practice that has a physician telephone coverage service.
Patients: All patients (483) who called during the 3-week study period to speak to a physician were evaluated, and for the 180 patients with symptoms, attempts were made to survey them by telephone 1 week after their initial telephone call.
Measurements and main results: The mean age of the 180 patients was 41 years, 71% were female, and 56% belonged to commercial managed care plans. In the week after the initial telephone call, the following outcomes were reported: 27% of the patients had no further contact with the practice; 9% filled a prescription medication; 19% called the practice again; 48% kept an earlier appointment in the practice; 3% saw an internist elsewhere; 8% saw a specialist; 8% went to an emergency department; 4% were admitted to a hospital. Of the 180 patients who called with symptoms, 160 (89%) were successfully contacted for survey. Eighty-seven percent of these 160 patients rated their satisfaction with the care they received over the telephone as excellent, very good, or good. In multivariate analysis, patients' own health perception identified those most likely to have symptom relief (p = .002), and symptom relief, in turn, was a strong predictor of high patient satisfaction (p = .006). Thirty-three percent of the 160 patients reported that they would have gone to an emergency department if a physician were not available by telephone.
Conclusions: In the present study, younger patients, female patients, and patients in commercial managed care plans used the telephone most frequently. Also, the telephone provided a viable alternative to emergency department and walk-in visits. Overall satisfaction with telephone medicine was high, and the strongest predictors of high patient satisfaction were symptom relief and patients' own health perception.