BACKGROUND: Symptoms are important drivers for the use of primary care services. Strategies aimed at shifting the focus away from the GP have broadened the range of primary healthcare available.
AIM: To explore preferences for managing symptoms and investigate trade-offs that the public are willing to make when deciding between different primary care services.
DESIGN AND SETTING: UK-wide postal questionnaire survey of 1370 adults.
METHOD: A discrete choice experiment examined management preferences for three symptoms of differing seriousness (diarrhoea, dizziness, and chest pain). Willingness-to-pay estimates compared preferences between symptoms, and by sex, age, and income.
RESULTS: Preferences differed significantly between symptoms. 'Self-care' was the preferred action for diarrhoea and 'consulting a GP' for dizziness and chest pain. 'Waiting time' and 'chance of a satisfactory outcome' were important factors for all three symptoms, although their relative importance differed. Broadly, people were more prepared to wait longer and less prepared to trade a good chance of a satisfactory outcome for symptoms rated as more serious. Generally, preferences within subgroups followed similar patterns as for the whole sample, although there were differences in the relative strength of preferences.
CONCLUSION: Despite increased choices in primary care, 'traditional' actions of 'self-care' for minor symptoms and 'GP consultation' for more serious symptoms were preferred. The present findings suggest, however, that people may be willing to trade between different health services, particularly for less serious symptoms. Understanding the relative importance of different factors may help inform interventions aimed at changing management behaviour or improving services.