Using email as a research tool in general practice: starting to implement the National Service Framework for Mental Health

Guy Houghton, Sukhdev Singh, Jason Fraser


Introduction The first primary care trust milestone for implementation of Standard 2 of the National Service Framework for Mental Health is the use of a formal diagnostic approach to the assessment of the severity of common psychiatric illnesses. Whilst developing a diagnostic tool to assess depressive symptoms, based on the ICD-10 classification of disease, we surveyed the current usage of such diagnostic aids by general practitioners (GPs) in Birmingham. According to the Birmingham Health Authority IT Directorate, 477 GP principals in the city had personal access to email at their practices through the NHSnet.
Method All GPs were sent a short questionnaire by email. They were asked to indicate their responses to four yes/no answers and return the email by pressing the 'Reply' icon. Non-respondents were then sent the questionnaire by post.
Results We had a total response rate of 67%. We received an email response from 105 GPs, or 22%. A further 216 out of a possible 372 GPs (58%) then responded by post. Forty-seven (22%) of the postal respondents had received the email, but 38 of them had problems replying; 150 (69%) said that they had never seen the email.
Conclusions The overall response rate to the questionnaire suggests that the topic was considered sufficiently relevant for GPs to reply and was not the reason for the poor email response. There were no obvious differences in the answers to the questionnaire to suggest that the mental health topic had identified a separate email-using GP population. Although four out of every five Birmingham GPs have access to email, only one in five feels confident or competent to use it as a regular means of professional communication. It is not yet appropriate to use email as the only conduit for obtaining GP opinion.


email; general practice; mental health; research

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