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Open Access Research article

Revisiting the symptom iceberg in today's primary care: results from a UK population survey

Alison M Elliott1*, Anne McAteer2 and Philip C Hannaford3

Author Affiliations

1 Senior Research Fellow, Centre of Academic Primary Care, Institute of Applied Health Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Foresterhill Health Centre, Westburn Road, Aberdeen, AB25 2AY, UK

2 Research Assistant, Centre of Academic Primary Care, Institute of Applied Health Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Foresterhill Health Centre, Westburn Road, Aberdeen, AB25 2AY, UK

3 Grampian Health Board Chair of Primary Care, Centre of Academic Primary Care, Institute of Applied Health Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Foresterhill Health Centre, Westburn Road, Aberdeen, AB25 2AY, UK

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BMC Family Practice 2011, 12:16  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-12-16

Published: 7 April 2011

Abstract

Background

Recent changes in UK primary care have increased the range of services and healthcare professionals available for advice. Furthermore, the UK government has promoted greater use of both self-care and the wider primary care team for managing symptoms indicative of self-limiting illness. We do not know how the public has been responding to these strategies. The aim of this study was to describe the current use of different management strategies in the UK for a range of symptoms and identify the demographic, socio-economic and symptom characteristics associated with these different approaches.

Methods

An age and sex stratified random sample of 8,000 adults (aged 18-60), drawn from twenty general practices across the UK, were sent a postal questionnaire. The questionnaire collected detailed information on 25 physical and psychological symptoms ranging from those usually indicative of minor illness to those which could be indicative of serious conditions. Information on symptom characteristics, actions taken to manage the symptoms and demographic/socio-economic details were also collected.

Results

Just under half of all symptoms reported resulted in respondents doing nothing at all. Lay-care was used for 35% of symptoms and primary care health professionals were consulted for 12% of symptoms. OTC medicine use was the most common lay-care strategy (used for 25% of all symptom episodes). The GP was the most common health professional consulted (consulted for 8% of all symptom episodes) while use of other primary care health professionals was very small (each consulted for less than 2% of symptom episodes). The actions taken for individual symptoms varied substantially although some broad patterns emerged. Symptom characteristics (in particular severity, duration and interference with daily life) were more commonly associated with actions taken than demographic or socio-economic characteristics.

Conclusion

While the use of lay-care was widespread, use of the primary care team other than the GP was low. Further research is needed to examine the public's knowledge and opinions of different primary care services to investigate why certain services are not being used to inform the future development of primary care services in the UK.

Keywords:
Signs and symptoms; Symptom iceberg; Community-based; Health care services; Primary care