Patients prefer nurses to doctors, says BMJ study

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Nurses are more popular than doctors as frontline providers of medical care, according to research.

Three studies run in GPs' surgeries found that patients were more satisfied after seeing a nurse than a doctor - and not just because the nurse gave them more time. Patients treated by nurses were given the same number of prescriptions and were cured just as quickly - but were happier with their care. There were also cost savings for the health service.

The findings, published in the British Medical Journal, will be welcomed by ministers who have signalled their intention to increase the role of nurses to cut waiting times and make the service more responsive and convenient to use. One of the commonest complaints about general practice is that consultations are rushed by doctors under pressure from long queues in the surgery waiting room.

The researchers suggest that the greater popularity of nurses may have to do with their less intimidating consultation style. Pamela Venning, a nurse practitioner at Manchester University who surveyed 1,300 patients treated by a nurse or doctor at 20 general practices, said: "Patients prefer nurses probably because they are friendlier, they have a different social standing and there aren't the same barriers there." Her study found nurses ordered more tests and screening and were more likely to offer repeat appointments. However, one-third of the patients had minor illnesses that probably did not need treatment. "Maybe the nurses are making them more dependent," she said.

Dr Chau Shum, a GP in Kent who compared 1,800 patients treated by nurses or doctors in five GP practices, said: "Nurses may use less jargon, be more approachable and friendly and seem less rushed. Patients may feel they can't speak openly to a doctor but have to sit and listen whereas they feel more on a par with a nurse."

In his trial, the nurses had received only one and a half days' training a week for three months - but still delivered a service that was liked by patients more than that offered by their GP. He warned that patient satisfaction was different from clinical and cost effectiveness - but said greater use of nurses should continue.

"There is no way the existing number of GPs is going to be able to provide the service and the availability that the Government wants," he said.

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