The objective of this study is to determine how patient age, sex, creatinine level, and comorbidity affect referral decisions for the treatment of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) and whether these decisions are affected by physician characteristics in three countries: Canada, the United States, and Britain. A vignette-based questionnaire was mailed to a random sample of family physicians in Ontario, Canada (1,818 physicians); all family physicians in the state of New York (1,814 physicians); and a sample of general practitioners from the south of England (2,228 physicians) in 1996. Physicians were presented with clinical scenarios involving a patient with varying degrees of renal insufficiency and a complicating comorbidity, including angina, diabetes, cancer, mental illness, or socioeconomic circumstances. They were asked to indicate the likelihood of referral. Half the physicians received a questionnaire describing a male patient, and half, a female patient. Mean creatinine levels at which physicians would refer were 260 micromol/L for British physicians, 297 micromol/L for Canadian physicians, and 340 micromol/L for American physicians. No difference in referral rates was found based on the sex of the patient or physician. Sixty-five percent of American and Canadian physicians would refer regardless of patient age, but only 49% of British physicians would do so. Family physicians in the United States, Canada, and Britain function as gatekeepers for patients with ESRD. They are less likely to refer based on increasing severity of comorbid conditions. They also discriminate based on age, but not sex.