Background: Research on patients' choice of hospital has focused on inpatients' rather than outpatients' choice of provider. We have investigated Danish outpatients' awareness and utilisation of freedom of choice of provider; which factors influence outpatients' choice of hospital, and how socio-demographic variables influence these factors in a single uptake area, where patients were free to choose any public hospital, where care was provided free at the point of delivery, and where distance to the closest hospitals were short by international standards.
Methods: Retrospective questionnaire study of 4,232 outpatients referred to examination, treatment, or follow-up at one of nine somatic outpatient clinics in Roskilde County in two months of 2002, who had not been hospitalised within the latest 12 months. The patients were asked, whether they were aware of and utilised freedom of choice of hospital.
Results: Fifty-four percent (2,272 patients) filled in and returned the questionnaire. Forty-one percent of respondents were aware of their right to choose, and 53% of those patients utilised their right to choose. Awareness of freedom of choice of provider was reported to be especially high in female outpatients, patients with longer education, salaried employees in the public sector, and in patients referred to surgical specialties. Female outpatients and students were especially likely to report that they utilised their right to choose the provider. Short distance was the most important reason for outpatients' choice, followed by the GP's recommendations, short waiting time, and the patient's previous experience with the hospital.
Conclusions: Outpatients' awareness and utilisation of free choice of health care provider was low. Awareness of freedom of choice of provider differed significantly by specialty and patient's gender, education and employment. Female patients and students were especially likely to choose the clinic by themselves. Most outpatients chose the clinic closest to their home, the GP's recommendation and short waiting time being the second and third most important factors behind choice.