Objective: To describe how pediatricians refer patients to specialists, including frequency of referral decisions, reasons for referral, and types of referrals.
Design: We conducted a prospective study of visits (N = 58 771) made to 142 pediatricians in a national primary care practice-based research network. During 20 consecutive practice days, physicians and parents completed questionnaires for referred patients, and office staff kept logs of all visits. Physicians used medical records to complete questionnaires 3 months after referrals were made.
Results: Pediatricians referred patients to specialists during 2.3% of office visits. Referrals made during telephone conversations with parents accounted for 27.5% of all referrals. The most common reason for referral was advice on diagnosis or treatment (74.3%). Referrals were made most commonly to surgical subspecialists (52.3%), followed by medical subspecialists (27.9%), nonphysicians (11.4%), and mental health practitioners (8.4%). Physicians requested a consultation or a referral with shared management in 75% of cases. Otitis media was the condition referred most often (9.2%). Fifty other conditions accounted for 84.3% of all referrals.
Conclusions: About 1 in 40 pediatric visits result in referral. Getting advice from a specialist is the most common reason for referral. Pediatricians desire a collaborative relationship with specialists for most of their referred patients. Physician training to increase clinical competence may be most useful for the 50 most commonly referred conditions. Education concerning the referral process should focus on the respective roles of the referring physician and specialist, particularly as they pertain to successful approaches for comanaging referred patients.