Objectives: While both community and hospital-based services strive to cope with the considerable burden posed by musculoskeletal disorders, multidisciplinary-led, integrated approaches are frequently lacking. It has been suggested that referrals to musculoskeletal services are frequently misdirected to an orthopaedic surgeon when non-surgical advice/intervention is warranted, reducing the efficiency of hospital-based services and potentially affecting quality of care. Triage of referrals may help to prevent this, but this system is dependent upon accurate and thorough information being provided in the referral letter. Our aim was to assess the feasibility of triage of musculoskeletal referrals to rheumatology and orthopaedic services at a large teaching hospital.
Methods: One thousand and eighty-seven consecutive referral letters to orthopaedic and rheumatology services were reviewed by a consultant rheumatologist. Letters were assessed for both basic content and the appropriate destination for that referral. In order to evaluate the accuracy of the assessor's prediction of the most appropriate destination of the referrals, the number of patients who were ultimately listed for surgical intervention was calculated in a random sample of orthopaedic referrals, 1 yr after the initial hospital appointment was requested.
Results: Six hundred and eighty-two referrals were to orthopaedics and 393 to rheumatology. Referrals relating to spinal pain were excluded. The content of letters was scant and no diagnosis was volunteered in 63.4% of referrals. Fifty-eight per cent of referrals to orthopaedics were considered appropriate; 27% of referrals to orthopaedics were defined as 'should definitely see a rheumatologist' (12%) or 'should probably see a rheumatologist' (15%). Fifteen per cent of referrals to orthopaedics were defined as 'could see either a surgeon or a rheumatologist'. Ninety-four per cent of referrals to rheumatology were defined as appropriate, 2% were not and 4% were defined as 'could see either a surgeon or a rheumatologist'. One year later, in a random sample of 373 of the orthopaedic referrals, 42.2% of those who were categorized as 'should see surgeon' and 9.7% of the 'should see a physician' group were listed for surgical intervention.
Conclusions: Many referrals to hospital-based musculoskeletal services are likely to be misdirected. Integrated referral and care pathways are required for efficient and optimal care of patients with musculoskeletal diseases. The development of such pathways will require significant support, education and training for general practitioners.