Why do physicians vary so widely in their referral rates?

J Gen Intern Med. 2000 Mar;15(3):163-8. doi: 10.1046/j.1525-1497.2000.04079.x.


Objective: To determine which physician practice and psychological factors contribute to observed variation in primary care physicians' referral rates.

Design: Cross-sectional questionnaire-based survey and analysis of claims database.

Setting: A large managed care organization in the Rochester, NY, metropolitan area.

Participants: Internists and family physicians.

Measurements and main results: Patient referral status (referred or not) was derived from the 1995 claims database of the managed care organization. The claims data were also used to generate a predicted risk of referral based on patient age, gender, and case mix. A physician survey completed by a sample of 182 of the physicians (66% of those eligible) included items on their practice and validated psychological scales on anxiety from uncertainty, risk aversiveness, fear of malpractice, satisfaction with practice, autonomous and controlled motivation for referrals and test ordering, and psycho-social beliefs. The relation between the risk of referral and the physician practice and psychological factors was examined using logistic regression. After adjustment for predicted risk of referral (case mix), patients were more likely to be referred if their physician was female, had more years in practice, was an internist, and used a narrower range of diagnoses (a higher Herfindahl index, also derived from the claims data). Of the psychological factors, only greater psychosocial orientation and malpractice fear was associated with greater likelihood of referral. When the physician practice factors were excluded from the analysis, risk aversion was positively associated with referral likelihood.

Conclusions: Most of the explainable variation in referral likelihood was accounted for by patient and physician practice factors like case mix, physician gender, years in practice, specialty, and the Herfindahl index. Relatively little variation was explained by any of the examined physician psychological factors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Insurance Claim Review
  • Male
  • Managed Care Programs / standards
  • Managed Care Programs / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • New York
  • Odds Ratio
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / standards
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Primary Health Care / standards
  • Primary Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Referral and Consultation / standards*
  • Referral and Consultation / statistics & numerical data*
  • Risk Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires