Background: Whether collaborative care models that enable interactive communication (timely, 2-way exchange of pertinent clinical information directly between primary care and specialist physicians) improve patient outcomes is uncertain.
Purpose: To assess the effects of interactive communication between collaborating primary care physicians and key specialists on outcomes for patients receiving ambulatory care.
Data sources: PubMed, PsycInfo, EMBASE, CINAHL, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects, and Web of Science through June 2008 and secondary references, with no language restriction.
Study selection: Studies that evaluated the effects of interactive communication between collaborating primary care physicians and specialists on outcomes for patients with diabetes, psychiatric conditions, or cancer.
Data extraction: Contextual, intervention, and outcome data from 23 studies were extracted by one reviewer and checked by another. Study quality was assessed with a 13-item checklist. Disagreement was resolved by consensus. Main outcomes for analysis were selected by reviewers who were blinded to study results.
Data synthesis: Meta-analysis indicated consistent effects across 11 randomized mental health studies (pooled effect size, -0.41 [95% CI, -0.73 to -0.10]), 7 nonrandomized mental health studies (pooled effect size, -0.47 [CI, -0.84 to -0.09]), and 5 nonrandomized diabetes studies (pooled effect size, -0.64 [CI, -0.93 to -0.34]). These findings remained robust to sensitivity analyses. Meta-regression indicated studies that included interventions to enhance the quality of information exchange had larger effects on patient outcomes than those that did not (-0.84 vs. -0.27; P = 0.002).
Limitations: Because collaborative interventions were inherently multifaceted, the efficacy of interactive communication by itself cannot be established. Inclusion of study designs with lower internal validity increased risk for bias. No studies involved oncologists.
Conclusion: Consistent and clinically important effects suggest a potential role of interactive communication for improving the effectiveness of primary care-specialist collaboration.
Primary funding source: RAND Health's Comprehensive Assessment of Reform Options Initiative, the Veterans Affairs Center for the Study of Provider Behavior, The Commonwealth Fund, and the Health Foundation.