Evaluating electronic referrals for specialty care at a public hospital

J Gen Intern Med. 2010 Oct;25(10):1123-8. doi: 10.1007/s11606-010-1402-1. Epub 2010 May 29.


Background: Poor communication between referring clinicians and specialists may lead to inefficient use of specialist services. San Francisco General Hospital implemented an electronic referral system (eReferral) that facilitates iterative pre-visit communication between referring and specialty clinicians to improve the referral process.

Objective: The purpose of the study was to determine the impact of eReferral (compared with paper-based referrals) on specialty referrals.

Design: The study was based on a visit-based questionnaire appended to new patient charts at randomly selected specialist clinic sessions before and after the implementation of eReferral.

Participants: Specialty clinicians.

Main measures: The questionnaire focused on the self-reported difficulty in identifying referral question, referral appropriateness, need for and avoidability of follow-up visits.

Key results: We collected 505 questionnaires from speciality clinicians. It was difficult to identify the reason for referral in 19.8% of medical and 38.0% of surgical visits using paper-based methods vs. 11.0% and 9.5% of those using eReferral (p-value 0.03 and <0.001). Of those using eReferral, 6.4% and 9.8% of medical and surgical referrals using paper methods vs. 2.6% and 2.1% were deemed not completely appropriate (p-value 0.21 and 0.03). Follow-up was requested for 82.4% and 76.2% of medical and surgical patients with paper-based referrals vs. 90.1% and 58.1% of eReferrals (p-value 0.06 and 0.01). Follow-up was considered avoidable for 32.4% and 44.7% of medical and surgical follow-ups with paper-based methods vs. 27.5% and 13.5% with eReferral (0.41 and <0.001).

Conclusion: Use of technology to promote standardized referral processes and iterative communication between referring clinicians and specialists has the potential to improve communication between primary care providers and specialists and to increase the effectiveness of specialty referrals.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Electronic Health Records / standards*
  • Health Services Accessibility / standards*
  • Hospitals, Public / methods
  • Hospitals, Public / standards*
  • Humans
  • Medicine / methods
  • Medicine / standards*
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Surveys and Questionnaires / standards