Open Access Research article

Investigating the impact of extraneous distractions on consultations in general practice: Lessons learned

Moyez Jiwa1*, Robert McKinley2, Carolyn O'Shea3, Hayley Arnet1, Katrina Spilsbury4 and Marthe Smith1

Author Affiliations

1 Western Australian Centre for Cancer and Palliative Care, Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

2 Department of General Practice, Keele University School of Medicine, Keele University, Keele, UK

3 Department of General Practice, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

4 Centre for Population Health Research, Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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BMC Medical Research Methodology 2009, 9:8  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-9-8

Published: 5 February 2009



Extraneous distractions may influence the flow of general practice consultations. This study piloted a methodology to examine the impact of interrupting general practitioners (GPs) while consulting actor-patients.


Six GPs were video recorded consulting six actor-patients each presenting a different clinical scenario in a simulated surgery. Five cases presented red flag cancer symptoms. Half the consultations were interrupted. Two independent assessors, blinded to the occurrence of interruptions, assessed consultation performance using the Leicester Assessment Package (LAP) for clinical competence.


24 of 36 consultations were video recorded with sufficient audio-visual clarity to allow scoring. The association between LAP score and three variables could be studied: a variety of interruptions, different GPs and various scenarios. Agreement between assessors on GP performance was poor and showed an increased bias with increasing LAP score. Despite this, the interruption did not significantly impact on assessor LAP scores (Mean difference: 0.22, P = 0.83) even after controlling for assessor, different GPs and scenarios.


Extraneous distractions had no impact on GP performance in this underpowered pilot study, a conclusion which needs to be confirmed in a larger study. However several important lessons were learned. Recorded actor-patient clinical sessions are logistically challenging. GPs whose skills were not previously assessed were working in unfamiliar surroundings dealing with relatively straight forward diagnostic challenges and may have anticipated the interruptions. In a redesign of this experiment it may be possible to eliminate some of these limitations.