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Lack of ethnicity profiling of patients in primary care in the UK has long impeded the informed development of quality of care and research efforts for ethnically diverse populations. This paper briefly summarises past relevant experience of ‘ethnic monitoring’, and reports a study to explore models and the practical realities of implementing ethnicity data collection in a metropolitan primary care setting. A proforma for patient completion was designed to collect information on self-assigned ethnic group, religion and preferred spoken and written language, alongside a template for recording these data on practice computer systems. Eight general practices with varying IT use, serving 43 000 patients in a range of socially and ethnic diverse localities, were recruited and trained to collect data. All practices chose to begin data collection opportunistically in reception and at new patient registrations, with initial delay due to staff shortage or sickness/absence. Using these methods, six practices made good early progress, experiencing few problems and minimal patient resistance. However, with 15–40% of all registered patients’ data recorded after three to four months, data collection then reached a plateau with little additional patient data subsequently captured. Two practices requiring an interpreter to assist patients did not engage this support or implement data collection. Most practices found mailing the proforma to patients was beyond their resources, though mailshots to selected patients achieved some success in two practices. Findings indicate that collecting data on patient ethnicity in primary care appears a considerable challenge, and the scale of work and costs for practices may be underestimated. In some practices, particularly in deprived areas, the realities of organisational and staff resource constraints may preclude practice-initiated ethnicity data collection, and require external administration. A combination of methods and attendant resource to achieve comprehensive profiling of patient populations in primary care is needed.