Objective: To examine family physicians' referral decisions, which we conceptualized as having 2 phases: whether to refer followed by to whom to refer.
Study design: Prospective cohort study.
Population: All visits (N = 34,519) and new referrals (N = 2534) occurring during 15 consecutive business days in the offices of 141 family physicians in 87 practices located in 31 states.
Outcomes measured: Rates of referral, reasons for referral, practitioners referred to, health problems prompting referral, and reasons for selecting particular specialists.
Results: Approximately 1 in 20 (5.1%) office visits led to referral. Although 68% of referrals were made by physicians during office visits, 18% were made by physicians during telephone conversations with patients, 11% by office staff with input from the physician, and 3% by staff without physician input. Physicians endorsed a mean of 1.8 reasons for making a referral. They sought specialists' advice on either diagnosis or treatment for 52.1% of referrals and asked the specialist to direct medical management for 25.9% and surgical management for 37.8%. Patient request was one reason for 13.6% of referrals. Fifty conditions accounted for 76% of all referrals. Surgical specialists were sent the largest share of referrals (45.4%), followed by medical specialists (31.0%), nonphysician clinicians (12.1%), obstetrician-gynecologists (4.6%), mental health professionals (4.2%), other practitioners (2.0%), and generalists (0.8%). Physicians recommended a specific practitioner to the patient for most (86.2%) referrals. Personal knowledge of the specialist was the most important reason for selecting a specific specialist.
Conclusions: Referrals are commonly made during encounters other than office visits, such as telephone conversations or staff-patient interactions, in primary care practice. Training in the referral process should ensure that family physicians obtain the skills necessary to expand their scope of practice, when appropriate; determine when and why a patient should be referred; and identify the type of practitioner to whom the patient should be sent.