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BACKGROUND: The relationship between socio-economic factors and consultation rates is important in determining resource allocation to general practices. AIM: To determine the relationship between general practice surgery consultation rates and census-derived socio-economic variables for patients receiving the same primary and secondary care. METHOD: A retrospective analysis was taken of computerized records in three general practices in Mansfield, North Nottinghamshire, with 29,142 patients spread over 15 electoral wards (Jarman score range from -23 to +25.5). Linear regression analysis of surgery consultation rates at ward and enumeration district levels was performed against Jarman and Townsend deprivation scores and census socio-economic variables. RESULTS: Both the Townsend score (r2 = 59%) and the Jarman score (r2 = 39%) were associated with surgery consultation rates at ward level. The Townsend score had a stronger association than the Jarman score because all four of its component variables were individually associated with increased consultations compared with four out of eight Jarman components. CONCLUSIONS: Even in practices not eligible for deprivation payments there were appreciable differences in consultation rates between areas with different socio-economic characteristics. The results suggest that the variables used to determine deprivation payments should be reconsidered, and they support suggestions that payments should be introduced at a lower level of deprivation and administered on an enumeration district basis.