Background: Referral rates of general practitioners (GPs) are an important determinant of secondary care utilization. The variation in these rates across GPs is considerable, and cannot be explained by patient morbidity alone. The main objective of this study was to assess the GPs' referral rate to secondary care in Norway, any associations between the referral decision and patient, GP, health care characteristics and who initiated the referring issue in the consultation.
Methods: The probabilities of referral to secondary care and/or radiological examination were examined in 100 consecutive consultations of 44 randomly chosen Norwegian GPs. The GPs recorded whether the issue of referral was introduced, who introduced it and if the patient was referred. Multilevel and naive multivariable logistic regression analyses were performed to explore associations between the probability of referral and patient, GP and health care characteristics.
Results: Of the 4350 consultations included, 13.7% (GP range 4.0%-28.0%) of patients were referred to secondary somatic and psychiatric care. Female GPs referred significantly more frequently than male GPs (16.0% versus 12.6%, adjusted odds ratio, AOR, 1.25), specialists in family medicine less frequently than their counterparts (12.5% versus 14.9%, AOR 0.76) and salaried GPs more frequently than private practitioners (16.2% versus 12.1%, AOR 1.36).In 4.2% (GP range 0%-12.9%) of the consultations, patients were referred to radiological examination. Specialists in family medicine, salaried GPs and GPs with a Norwegian medical degree referred significantly more frequently to radiological examination than their counterparts (AOR 1.93, 2.00 and 1.73, respectively).The issue of referral was introduced in 23% of the consultations, and in 70.6% of these cases by the GP. The high referrers introduced the referral issue significantly more frequently and also referred a significantly larger proportion when the issue was introduced.
Conclusions: The main finding of the present study was a high overall referral rate, and a striking range among the GPs. Male GPs and specialists in family medicine referred significantly less frequently to secondary care, but the latter referred more frequently to radiological examination. Our findings indicate that intervention on high referrers is a potential area for quality improvement, and there is a need to explore the referral decision process itself.