On the basis of data from all the host municipalities in Norway this study describes routines, locations and equipment in the out-of-hours districts and premises. We found differences in several important variables, both between health regions and municipalities (according to size). These differences included the plans for training medical staff, the use of health radio and the reporting of discrepancies. Many host municipalities did not adhere to some of the regulations on internal control in health and social services and acute medical care outside the hospital. Possible causes are for example that patient surveys were seldom carried out and only half of the host municipalities had doctors on call that were always accessible by radio.
The study is based on replies from all the host municipalities, which makes it fully representative. The data basis was the reply given by those responsible in the host municipality, so the validity of some of the information may be uncertain. The response rate varied for some questions, but for most of the presented data it was very good.
There were many different solutions to locating the out-of-hours service; in most places it was in the same site as a GP centre. Only having doctors driving home to patients was rare, as was combining the out-of-hours service with the accident and emergency department at the hospital. Home visits characterize the situation as it was before in most places. Using the accident and emergency department should be tested out and evaluated more before it can be recommended as a desirable solution. Most out-of-hours services had access to the same type of rooms and equipment. Most large host municipalities had their out-of-hours service linked up with a hospital. This is a viable option when the municipality is geographically small, but densely populated and has a hospital. It means a short distance to the casualty clinic for most of the inhabitants. Many patients can be dealt with at one time and hospital resources are more readily accessible. Another positive effect is the reduced need for ambulances.
In districts where the population is scarce and scattered, as in Health North, other options are probably more feasible. And yet, Health North had more out-of-hours services (percentage-wise) located in hospitals than Health West and Central-Norway. This may partly be explained by the fact that Health North have a higher population percentage in urban settlements. In spite of this most of their out-of-hours services were localized in a GP centre with a fixed location, which reflects the high number of municipal out-of-hours services.
Half of the host municipalities stated that they had a training programme for doctors and other medical staff. We did not ask for details, so we do not know if this concerned administrative routines or if acute medicine was prioritized. One wonders how new recruits, locums, or other staff manage if training is not provided. The regulation on internal control points out that those responsible are to ensure adequate knowledge among their employees (2).
Nearly all host municipalities documented all or nearly all patient contacts. Most recorded them in a medical journal system. The host municipalities could not however give a full answer as to the number of contacts made with the out-of-hours service in the course of one year. This may indicate either that it is not possible to retrieve statistics from the documentation or that this is not an integral part of routine quality assurance.
The out-of-hours service is greatly disadvantaged by the lack of national statistics of contacts and contact patterns. At the National Centre for Emergency Primary Health Care we have now started a monitoring project based on a representative selection of seven out-of-hours districts, with in all 18 municipalities and a population of about 200 000. The aim is also to collect data on the degree of urgency with each contact, i.e. to chart acute help as distinct from consultations of a low priority that the RGP can deal with during office hours.
In more than 80 % of the host municipalities, the out-of-hours services give appointments to patients. This is common for the small- and medium-sized host municipalities. Brügger & Jøsendal claim that in a municipality like Radøy (fewer than 5000 inhabitants) most contacts with the out-of-hours service were not of an acute nature; the doctors mainly practiced low urgency general medicine in the out-of-hours service (6). Less than 40 % of the host municipalities gave patients a priority code on arrival. The large host municipalities with presumably the greatest pressure of patients and perhaps direct access to the out-of-hours services participated more in triaging patients on arrival.
70 % of the host municipalities reported that they were members of Noklus (the Norwegian Quality Improvement of Primary Care Laboratories). In comparison, nearly all of the country’s GP centres with laboratories (GPs or practising specialists) took part in Noklus in 2005 (7). A GP centre may be a daytime member of Noklus, but the same routines of quality assurance may not be practiced in the evening, at night or weekends if other staff use the premises for the out-of-hours service.
The Directorate for Health and Social Affairs believes that patient surveys can give the municipalities data on quality, quantity and the population’s experience of the health service and that this should be used as a means of measurement and as a guide (8). The regulation on internal control in health and social services points out that the experiences of patients and their families should be used to improve services (2). Patient surveys can be one of several means of collecting information on such experiences, but they are seldom used in the out-of-hours services. In Health South half of the host municipalities did indeed carry out patient surveys and this was twice as many as in any of the other health regions. It was largely the host municipalities that carried out the surveys.
Two thirds of the host municipalities wrote discrepancy reports. This is positive if the reports are used constructively to improve the quality of the out-of-hours service. Most host municipalities that wrote discrepancy reports were connected to out-of-hours call centres and hospitals. It is possible that these host municipalities are under the influence of already existing quality assurance requirements from other larger groups.
The regulation on requirements for acute medical services outside of hospitals explains the municipality’s responsibility regarding communications equipment (3). The municipalities are required to have available equipment and emergency communications preparedness. According to this study about half of the host municipalities did not always meet the requirement for communications preparedness. Many doctors on call were not always accessible by radio and did not always respond to alarm calls from the EMCCs or the out-of-hours call centre.
In conclusion, this study has shown that there are both similarities and differences within the organization of out-of-hours services in Norway. Localization varied slightly more between the municipalities than facilities and equipment (organized in similar ways in most municipalities), even though GP centres were the norm. There are also differences in a number of routines in the health regions and in relation to the size of district. Writing discrepancy reports was more common in the larger host municipalities while the use of radio was more common in the small host municipalities. Many municipalities did not adhere to all the legal requirements.