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BACKGROUND. The 1990 contract requires general practitioners to offer all their patients aged 75 years and over an annual health check. Increasing importance is being placed on consumers' views of service provision. AIM. A study was undertaken in June 1992 to investigate elderly patients' views and experiences of the annual health check, and to compare these with the previously reported views of general practitioners and practice nurses who had also been surveyed as part of the study. METHOD. Twenty family health services authorities wrote to a sample of 1500 elderly patients asking if the patient's name could be passed to researchers. Patients who agreed were then interviewed. RESULTS. A total of 664 elderly patients (44%) were interviewed. Only 64% of respondents were aware of their entitlement to a health check. Vulnerable patients, such as those in poor health or who lived alone, were less likely to know about the health checks than other patients. Only 31% of respondents thought they had had a health check. Of these, fewer than half recalled the doctor or nurse discussing the findings with them, although 80% of doctors reported that they always or mostly discussed results with patients. Elderly patients were more likely to recall the physical aspects of the health check rather than discussion about particular health aspects. However, doctors and nurses felt that routine checks were useful for giving advice rather than detecting medical problems. Of those who had had a health check, 82% reported no improvement in their health as a result, but 93% thought that they were a good idea. Only 7% of doctors thought they were of value, compared with the majority of nurses. CONCLUSION. It appeared that the inverse care law was operating, with those more in need of the service being less likely to have known about it. Discrepancies were found between general practitioners' and practice nurses' reports of service provision and those of elderly patients. Evidence about the cost-effectiveness of regular health checks may help the conflict between professional scepticism and consumer enthusiasm for these assessments.