Objectives: It is generally assumed that health care systems in which specialist and hospital care is only accessible after referral by a general practitioner (GP) have lower total health care costs. In this study, the following questions were addressed: do health care systems with GPs acting as gatekeepers to specialized care have lower health care expenditure than those with directly accessible specialist care? Does health care expenditure increase more rapidly in countries without a referral system than in those with the GP acting as a gatekeeper?
Methods: Multiple regression analyses on total and ambulatory health care expenditure in 18 OECD countries.
Results: Analyses showed only one statistically significant effect (P < 0.05) in countries with gatekeeping GPs: ambulatory care expenditure has increased more slowly than in non-gatekeeping systems. No significant effects of gatekeeping were found on the level of ambulatory care costs, or on the level or growth of total health care expenditure. As in earlier studies, the most important factor influencing aggregate health care costs and their growth is gross national product (GNP), followed by the share of public funding. Relationships that exist at a micro level (such as lower costs with a gatekeeping primary care doctor) did not show up in aggregate data at a macro level.
Conclusions: Gatekeeping systems appear to be better able to contain ambulatory care expenditure. More research is necessary to understand micro level mechanisms and to distinguish the effects of gatekeeping from other structural aspects of health care systems.