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BACKGROUND: UK health policy aims to reduce the use of unscheduled care, by increasing proactive and preventative management of patients with long-term conditions in primary care. AIM: The study explored healthcare professionals' understanding of why patients with long-term conditions use unscheduled care, and the healthcare professionals' understanding of their role in relation to reducing the use of unscheduled care. DESIGN AND SETTING: Qualitative study interviewing different types of healthcare professionals providing primary care or unscheduled care services in northwest England. METHOD: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 29 healthcare professionals (six GPs; five out-of-hours GPs; four emergency department doctors; two practice nurses; three specialist nurses; two district nurses; seven active case managers). Data were analysed using framework analysis. RESULTS: Healthcare professionals viewed the use of unscheduled care as a necessary component of care for patients with long-term conditions. Those whose roles involved working to targets to reduce the use of unscheduled care described a tension between this and delivering optimum patient care. Three approaches to reducing unscheduled care were described: optimising the system; negotiating the system; and optimising the patient. CONCLUSION: Current policy to reduce the use of unscheduled care does not take account of the perceptions of the healthcare professionals who are expected to implement them. Lipsky's theory of street-level bureaucrats provides a framework to understand how healthcare professionals respond to imposed policies. Healthcare professionals did not see the use of unscheduled care as a problem and there was limited commitment to the policy targets. Therefore, policy should aim for whole-system change rather than reliance on individual healthcare professionals to make changes in their practice.

Original publication




Journal article


Br J Gen Pract

Publication Date





e192 - e199


After-Hours Care, Attitude of Health Personnel, Attitude to Health, Chronic Disease, Comprehension, England, Family Nurse Practitioners, General Practitioners, Health Policy, Humans, Nurses, Community Health, Patient Acceptance of Health Care, Primary Health Care