Background. After-hours telephone calls are a stressful and frustrating aspect of pediatric practice. At the request of private practice pediatricians in Denver, a metropolitan area-wide system was created to manage after-hours pediatric telephone calls and after-hours patient care. This system, the After-Hours Program (AHP), uses specially trained pediatric nurses with standardized protocols to provide after-hours telephone triage and advice for the patients of 92 Denver pediatricians, representing 56 practices.
Objectives. This report describes the AHP, presents data from 4 years' experience with the program, and describes results of our evaluation of the following aspects of the program: subscribing physician satisfaction, parent satisfaction, the accuracy and appropriateness of telephone triage, and program costs.
Methods. After-Hours Program records (including quality assurance data) for all 4 years of operation were retrospectively reviewed, tabulated, and analyzed. The results of two subscribing physician surveys and one parent caller satisfaction survey are presented. A retrospective review of after-hours patient care encounter forms assessed the necessity for after-hours visits triaged by the AHP. An analysis of the total cost of this program to 10 randomly selected subscribing physicians was conducted using current AHP data and a survey of the 10 physicians.
Results. In 4 years, 107 938 calls have been successfully managed without an adverse clinical outcome. Minor errors in using protocols occurred in one call out of 1450 after-hours calls. After-hours phone calls necessitated an after-hours patient visit 20% of the time and generated one after-hours hospital admission out of every 88 calls. Just over half of the patients were managed with home care advice only, and 28% were given home care advice after-hours and seen the next day in the primary physician's office. Of all patients directed by the telephone triage nurses to be seen after hours, 78% were determined to have a condition necessitating after-hours care. Data are presented regarding call volumes by time of day, day of week, patient age, and patient's initial complaint. The 6 most common complaints accounted for more than one half of the calls, and 38 complaints accounted for more than 95% of all after-hours calls. Utilization by subscribing physicians is described. Satisfaction among subscribing pediatricians was 100%, and among parents was 96% to 99% on a variety of issues. The total cost to participating Denver pediatricians (which includes revenues "given up" as a result of not seeing patients after hours) ranged from 1% to 12% of their annual net income, depending on a variety of factors.
Conclusions. Large-scale after-hours telephone coverage systems can be effective and well-received by patients, parents, and primary physicians. Data presented in this report can assist in planning the training of personnel who provide after-hours telephone advice and triage. Controversies associated with this type of program are discussed. Suggestions are made regarding the direction of future programs and research.