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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Transition from specialist to primary diabetes care: A qualitative study of perspectives of primary care physicians

Sharon Brez1*, Margo Rowan2, Janine Malcolm3, Sheryl Izzi1, Julie Maranger3, Clare Liddy2, Erin Keely3 and Teik Chye Ooi3

Author Affiliations

1 Foustanellas Endocrine and Diabetes Centre, The Ottawa Hospital, 4th Floor Riverside Campus, 1967 Riverside Drive, Ottawa Ontario, K1H 7W9, Canada

2 Department of Family Medicine, University of Ottawa, C.T. Lamont Primary Health Care Research Centre, Elizabeth Bruyere Research Institute, 43 Bruyere St Ottawa Ontario, K1N 5C8, Canada

3 Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, University of Ottawa, 4th Floor, 1967 Riverside Drive, Ottawa, Ontario, K1H 7W9, Canada

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BMC Family Practice 2009, 10:39  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-10-39

Published: 6 June 2009



The growing prevalence of diabetes and heightened awareness of the benefits of early and intensive disease management have increased service demands and expectations not only of primary care physicians but also of diabetes specialists. While research has addressed issues related to referral into specialist care, much less has been published about the transition from diabetes specialists back to primary care. Understanding the concerns of family physicians related to discharge of diabetes care from specialist centers can support the development of strategies that facilitate this transition and result in broader access to limited specialist services. This study was undertaken to explore primary care physician (PCP) perspectives and concerns related to reassuming responsibility for diabetes care after referral to a specialized diabetes center.


Qualitative data were collected through three focus groups. Sessions were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim. Data were coded and sorted with themes identified using a constant comparison method. The study was undertaken through the regional academic referral center for adult diabetes care in Ottawa, Canada. Participants included 22 primary care physicians representing a variety of referral frequencies, practice types and settings.


Participants described facilitators and barriers to successful transition of diabetes care at the provider, patient and systems level. Major facilitators included clear communication of a detailed, structured plan of care, ongoing access to specialist services for advice or re-referral, continuing education and mentoring for PCPs. Identified provider barriers were gaps in PCP knowledge and confidence related to diabetes treatment, excessive workload and competing time demands. Systems deterrents included reimbursement policies for health professionals and inadequate funding for diabetes medications and supplies. At the PCP-patient interface, insufficient patient confidence or trust in PCP's ability to manage diabetes, poor motivation and "non-compliance" emerged as potential patient barriers to transition. Incongruence between PCP attitudes and expectations related to diabetes self-management and those of patients who had attended a multidisciplinary specialist center was also observed.


This study underlines the breadth of PCP concerns related to transition of diabetes care and the importance of this topic to them. While tools that promote timely information flow and care planning are cornerstones to successful transition, and may be sufficient for some practitioners, appropriately resourced decision support and education strategies should also be available to enhance PCP capacity and readiness to resume diabetes care after referral to a specialist center. Characteristics of the patient-care provider relationship that impact discharge were identified and are worthy of further research.