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BACKGROUND: The number of people residing in nursing homes has increased. General practitioners (GPs) receive an increased capitation fee for elderly patients in recognition of their higher consultation rate. However, there is no distinction between elderly patients residing in nursing homes and those in the community. AIM: To determine whether nursing home residents receive greater general practice input than people residing in the community. METHOD: Prospective comparative study of all 345 residents of eight nursing homes in Glasgow and a 2:1 age, sex, and GP matched comparison group residing in the community. A comparison of contacts with primary care over three months in terms of frequency, nature, length, and outcome was carried out. RESULTS: Nursing home residents received more total contacts with primary care staff (P < 0.0001) and more face-to-face consultations with GPs (P < 0.0001). They were more likely to be seen as an emergency (P < 0.01) but were no more likely to be referred to hospital, and were less likely to be followed-up by their GP (P < 0.0001). Although individual consultations with nursing home residents were shorter than those with the community group (P < 0.0001), the overall time spent consulting with them was longer (P < 0.001). This equated to an additional 28 minutes of time per patient per annum. Some of this time would have been offset by less time spent travelling, since 61% of nursing home consultations were done during the same visit as other consultations, compared with only 3% of community consultations (P < 0.0001). CONCLUSION: Our study suggests that nursing home residents do require a greater input from general practice than people of the same age and sex who are residing in the community. While consideration may be given to greater financial reimbursement of GPs who provide medical care to nursing home residents, consideration should also be given to restructuring the medical cover for nursing home residents. This would result in a greater scope for proactive and preventive interventions and for consulting with several patients during one visit.