Challenges and strategies for general practitioners diagnosing serious infections in older adults: a UK qualitative interview study

Sara McKelvie, Abigail Moore, Caroline Croxson, Dan Lasserson, Gail N Hayward

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3 Citations (Scopus)
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Serious infections in older people are associated with unplanned hospital admissions and high mortality. Recognising the presence of a serious infection and making an accurate diagnosis are important challenges for General Practice. This study aimed to explore the issues UK GPs face when diagnosing serious infections in older patients.


Qualitative study using semi-structured interviews. 28 GPs from 27 practices were purposively sampled from across the UK to achieve maximum variation in terms of GP role, experience and practice population. Interviews began by asking participants to describe recent or memorable cases where they had assessed older patients with suspected serious infections. Additional questions from the topic guide were used to explore the challenges further. Interview transcripts were coded and analysed using a modified framework approach.


Diagnosing serious infection in older adults was perceived to be challenging by participating GPs and the diagnosis was often uncertain. Contributing factors included patient complexity, atypical presentations, as well as a lack of knowledge of patients due to a loss in continuity. Diagnostic challenges were present at each stage of the patient assessment. Scoring systems were mainly used as communication tools. Investigations were sometimes used to resolve diagnostic uncertainty, but availability and speed of result limited their practical use. Clear safety-net plans shared with patients and their families helped GPs manage ongoing uncertainty.


Diagnostic challenges are present throughout the assessment of an older adult with a serious infection in primary care. Supporting GPs to provide continuity of care may improve the recognition and developing point of care testing for use in community settings may reduce diagnostic uncertainty.

Original languageEnglish
Article number56
Pages (from-to)1-9
Number of pages9
JournalBMC Family Practice
Issue number56
Publication statusPublished - 26 Apr 2019


  • clinical decision-making
  • general practitioners
  • geriatric
  • infection
  • older people
  • primary health care
  • qualitative research


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