Background: In this study we explored the challenges to establishing a community of practice (CoP) to address standards in general practice. We focused on the issue of improving referral letters which are the main form of communication between general practitioners (GPs) and specialists. There is evidence to suggest that the information relayed to specialists at the time of referral could be improved.
Methods: We aimed to develop a community of practice consisting of GPs in Western Australia to improve the quality of referral letters to six specialty clinics. Three phases included: establishing the CoP, monitoring the progress of the CoP and sustaining and managing the CoP. The CoP's activity centred on referral letters to each of six selected specialties. A local measure for the quality of the referral letters was developed from a survey of participants about specific items of history and weighted for their perceived importance in the referral letter. Referral letters by participants written before and after the benchmarking exercise were scored for quality based on the standards set by the CoP. Feedback to participants regarding the 'quality' of their individual referrals was provided by a nominated member of the CoP, including a comparison of before and after scores.
Results: 15 GPs were recruited. Only five GPs submitted referral letters both before and after benchmarking. The five GPs that participated in both study phases submitted a total of 102 referral letters (53 before and 49 after). There was a 26 point (95% CI 11-41) improvement in the average scores of the second set of letters after taking clustering by speciality into account, indicating the quality of referral letters improved substantially after feedback.
Conclusion: There are many challenges to forming a CoP to focus on improving a specific issue in general practice. However we were able to demonstrate that those practitioners who participated in all aspects of the project substantially improved the quality of their referral letters. For recruitment it was important to work with a champion for the project from within the practice. The project took several months to complete therefore some GPs became disengaged. Some were very disappointed by their performance when compared to colleagues. This reaction may be an important motivation to change, however it needs to be sensitively handled if participants are not to become disillusioned or disheartened.