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BACKGROUND: Triage and clinical consultations increasingly occur remotely. We aimed to learn why safety incidents occur in remote encounters and how to prevent them. SETTING AND SAMPLE: UK primary care. 95 safety incidents (complaints, settled indemnity claims and reports) involving remote interactions. Separately, 12 general practices followed 2021-2023. METHODS: Multimethod qualitative study. We explored causes of real safety incidents retrospectively ('Safety I' analysis). In a prospective longitudinal study, we used interviews and ethnographic observation to produce individual, organisational and system-level explanations for why safety and near-miss incidents (rarely) occurred and why they did not occur more often ('Safety II' analysis). Data were analysed thematically. An interpretive synthesis of why safety incidents occur, and why they do not occur more often, was refined following member checking with safety experts and lived experience experts. RESULTS: Safety incidents were characterised by inappropriate modality, poor rapport building, inadequate information gathering, limited clinical assessment, inappropriate pathway (eg, wrong algorithm) and inadequate attention to social circumstances. These resulted in missed, inaccurate or delayed diagnoses, underestimation of severity or urgency, delayed referral, incorrect or delayed treatment, poor safety netting and inadequate follow-up. Patients with complex pre-existing conditions, cardiac or abdominal emergencies, vague or generalised symptoms, safeguarding issues, failure to respond to previous treatment or difficulty communicating seemed especially vulnerable. General practices were facing resource constraints, understaffing and high demand. Triage and care pathways were complex, hard to navigate and involved multiple staff. In this context, patient safety often depended on individual staff taking initiative, speaking up or personalising solutions. CONCLUSION: While safety incidents are extremely rare in remote primary care, deaths and serious harms have resulted. We offer suggestions for patient, staff and system-level mitigations.

Original publication




Journal article


BMJ Qual Saf

Publication Date



Diagnostic errors, Prehospital care, Primary care, Qualitative research, Safety culture