To assess the influence of the timing of nephrology referral on the short- and long-term outcome of hemodialysis patients, we retrospectively studied 309 patients who had end-stage renal failure and entered the chronic hemodialysis program in Sainte-Marguerite University Hospital between January 1, 1989, and December 31, 1996. We excluded from the analysis five patients without available data on referral pattern and 34 patients with irreversible acute renal failure. Of the remaining 270 patients, 177 patients (58%) had an early referral (ER) 16 or more weeks before the start of dialysis, and 93 patients (31%) had a late referral (LR) of less than 16 weeks before dialysis. Short-time morbidity (initial emergent dialysis, pulmonary edema, severe hypertension, temporary vascular access placement for first dialysis, prolonged initial hospitalization) was significantly more frequent in LR patients. Long-term evolution (mean follow-up, 26.5 +/- 26 months) did not differ between the two groups. The number of days of hospitalization per patient-year at risk beyond the third month was 21.5 +/- 33.7 days for ER and 21.1 +/- 36 days for LR patients. Survival analysis showed no difference between the two groups: 3-month survival rates were 96% in both groups, 1-year survival rates were 90% in the ER and 89% in the LR group, and 5-year survival rates were 52% in the ER and 56% in the LR group. In a Cox hazards regression model, referral pattern was not associated with a greater risk for death. In conclusion, delayed nephrology referral generated strikingly greater initial morbidity, but long-term outcome of hemodialysis patients was not modified by delayed nephrological care.