A categorisation of problems and solutions to improve patient referrals from primary to specialty care

James Greenwood-Lee, Lauren Jewett, Linda Woodhouse, Deborah A. Marshall

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Improving access to specialty care has been identified as a critical issue in the delivery of health services, especially given an increasing burden of chronic disease. Identifying and addressing problems that impact access to specialty care for patients referred to speciality care for non-emergent procedures and how these deficiencies can be managed via health system delivery interventions is important to improve care for patients with chronic conditions. However, the primary-specialty care interface is complex and may be impacted by a variety of potential health services delivery deficiencies; with an equal range of interventions developed to correct them. Consequently, the literature is also diverse and difficult to navigate. We present a narrative review to identify existing literature, and provide a conceptual map that categorizes problems at the primary-specialty care interface with linkages to corresponding interventions aimed at ensuring that patient transitions across the primary-specialty care interface are necessary, appropriate, timely and well communicated. Methods: We searched MEDLINE and EMBASE databases from January 1, 2005 until Dec 31, 2014, grey literature and reference lists to identify articles that report on interventions implemented to improve the primary-specialty care interface. Selected articles were categorized to describe: 1) the intervention context, including the deficiency addressed, and the objective of the intervention 2) intervention activities, and 3) intervention outcomes. Results: We identified 106 articles, producing four categories of health services delivery deficiencies based in: 1) clinical decision making; 2) information management; 3) the system level management of patient flows between primary and secondary care; and 4) quality-of-care monitoring. Interventions were divided into seven categories and fourteen sub-categories based on the deficiencies addressed and the intervention strategies used. Potential synergies and trade-offs among interventions are discussed. Little evidence exists regarding the synergistic and antagonistic interactions of alternative intervention strategies. Conclusion: The categorization acts as an aid in identifying why the primary-specialty care interface may be failing and which interventions may produce improvements. Overlap and interconnectedness between interventions creates potential synergies and conflicts among co-implemented interventions.

Original languageEnglish
Article number986
JournalBMC Health Services Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 20 Dec. 2018


  • Chronic illness
  • Health system
  • Intervention
  • Primary care
  • Referral
  • Secondary care
  • Specialty care


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