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High quality primary care is a foundational element of effective health services. Internationally, primary care physicians (general practitioners (GPs), family doctors) are experiencing significant workload pressures. How non-patient-facing work contributes to these pressures and what constitutes this work is poorly understood and often unrecognised and undervalued by patients, policy makers, and even clinicians engaged in it. This paper examines non-patient-facing work ethnographically, informed by practice theory, the Listening Guide, and empirical ethics. Ethnographic observations (104 h), in-depth interviews (n = 16; 8 with GPs and 8 with other primary care staff) and reflexive workshops were conducted in two general practices in England. Our analysis shows that ‘hidden work’ was integral to direct patient care, involving diverse clinical practices such as: interpreting test results; crafting referrals; and accepting interruptions from clinical colleagues. We suggest the term ‘hidden care work’ more accurately reflects the care-ful nature of this work, which was laden with ambiguity and clinical uncertainty. Completing hidden care work outside of expected working hours was normalised, creating feelings of inefficiency, and exacerbating workload pressure. Pushing tasks forward into an imagined future (when conditions might allow its completion) commonly led to overspill into GPs' own time. GPs experienced tension between their desire to provide safe, continuous, ‘caring’ care and the desire to work a manageable day, in a context of increasing demand and burgeoning complexity.

More information Original publication



Journal article




Social Science & Medicine Volume 350, June 2024, 116922


Elsevier B.V

Publication Date





This work was supported by The National Institute for Health Research School for Primary Care Research Grant Reference Number: 573.


General practice, Workload, Administration, Ethnography, Quality of care