Objective: To determine the effect of proximity of surgical specialists on general practitioners' (GPs') rates of referral of surgical problems to specialist care (ie, are surgical referral rates of GPs in rural or remote areas similar to those of GPs in urban centres?).
Design: A cross-sectional survey of GP-patient encounters.
Setting: The Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health (BEACH) program, which involves all active registered GPs in Australia.
Participants: A random sample of 3030 GPs, each providing details of 100 consecutive patient encounters.
Main outcome measures: Proportion of surgical problems (including ophthalmological and obstetric and gynaecological) referred to surgical specialists (surgeons' rooms, hospital outpatient departments or hospital emergency departments).
Results: Absence of a local specialist did not significantly influence the proportion of surgical problems referred by GPs overall, but the proportion referred was significantly lower for obstetric (odds ratio [OR], 0.56; 95% CI, 0.44-0.70) and ophthalmological (OR, 0.60; 95% CI, 0.49-0.73) problems. Other factors independently associated with referral of a lower proportion of problems included male GPs, female and younger patients, holders of a Health Care Card, injury-related and non-cancer-related problems, follow-up presentations, and more than one problem managed at an encounter.
Conclusions: Our findings confirm that rural and remote GPs undertake much of their patients' antenatal care, and are less likely to use specialists when managing ophthalmological problems. Absence of local specialists in other surgical specialties is not a barrier to referral of patients with surgical disorders.