Messages on GP answering machines 'too fast'

Can be a barrier to older people seeking care
  • Deborah Condon

GP answering machines can present a barrier to older people who require out-of-hours care, a new study has found.

According to researchers at the Dundalk Institute of Technology, GP out-of-hours care is an essential service for older people, supporting them to live at home for longer.

Older people mainly call their GP out of hours when they need a doctor at night. The study set out to examine the impact of GP answering machines on older people who are trying to access out-of-hours care.

Outgoing answering machine messages were examined in 33 GP surgeries in two counties.

The study found that difficulty hearing the GP's message due to low volume or interfering noise was identified in 82% of all messages.

Furthermore, in 51% of messages, the pace at which the message was delivered was faster than a normal conversational pace of speed. Normal conversation involves 120-150 words per minute, however 27% of the messages had a pace of over 170 words per minute.

The researchers pointed out that this pace is too fast for the message to be comfortably heard and processed for understanding, and as a result, the listener may miss out on key information. For example, they may not have time to take down a relevant phone number for a doctor on call.

The study found that 18% of messages only provided the number for a doctor on call once, 64% provided it twice, while 18% provided it three times.

However, in 61% of cases, multiple instructions were given, including additional phone numbers and surgery opening hours, which had the potential of causing confusion.

The terms used also require interpretation and cognitive processing, such as "treble seven" and "double one". Different formats were also used, such as ‘"eighteen fifty" compared to "one eight five oh".

The study also found that the language used had the potential to cause confusion. For example, one-third of messages advised people to call the doctor on call in case of an "emergency", one-third advised people to call if it was "urgent", while one-third of messages did not define any urgency level that was required to call a doctor on call.

The out-of-hours service was also referred to in a variety of ways, such as "Northeast Doc", "doc on call" and "out-of-hours surgery".

The study concluded that GP answering machines present a barrier for older people who require out-of-hours care.

"The information processing ability of older people, often in urgent need when seeking a doctor out of hours, may be compromised due to stress, as well as illness or age-related physical challenges," the researchers said.

They noted that the researcher who made the calls as part of this study "was not ill or in distress, and had unimpaired hearing, vision and writing coordination abilities", yet they found it necessary to listen to most of the messages more than once in order get the relevant information.

The researchers said that these findings can be applied to all GP practices. Solutions include slowing the pace of messages and ensuring only essential information is provided.

Details of these findings are published in the Irish Medical Journal.


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