Dr Ralph Thomas and colleagues from Western General Hospital in Edinburgh studied a group of GP practices in Tayside and North East Fife. The practices were given direct access to brain-scanning services in three local hospitals.
After the scans, GPs referred just 14 per cent of patients to a neurologist because of headache. This suggests that referrals to secondary care were reduced by 86 per cent, the researchers said.
Writing in the British Journal of General Practice, Dr Thomas and colleagues concluded: 'The results of this study suggest that open-access scanning may give GPs more confidence in managing the small minority of patients for whom a normal scan will provide reassurance and prevent secondary referral.'
They added that it could be argued that GPs were best-placed in the NHS to identify patients who were most likely to be reassured by such a scan.