Open Access Open Badges Research article

Bridging the care continuum: patient information needs for specialist referrals

Carol L Ireson1*, Svetla Slavova2, Carol L Steltenkamp3 and F Douglas Scutchfield4

  • * Corresponding author: Carol L Ireson

  • † Equal contributors

Author Affiliations

1 College of Public Health, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, USA

2 Office of Institutional Research, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, USA

3 College of Medicine, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, USA

4 College of Public Health, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, USA

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BMC Health Services Research 2009, 9:163  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-9-163

Published: 15 September 2009



Information transfer is critical in the primary care to specialist referral process and has been examined extensively in the US and other countries, yet there has been little attention to the patient's perspective of the information transfer process. This cross-sectional study examined the quality of the information received by patients with a chronic condition from the referring and specialist physician in the specialist referral process and the relationship of the quality of information received to trust in the physicians.


Structured telephone interviews were conducted with a random sample of 250 patients who had experienced a referral to a specialist for the first visit for a chronic condition within the prior six months. The sample was selected from the patients who visited specialist physicians at any of the 500 hospitals from the National Research Corporation client base.


Most patients (85%) received a good explanation about the reason for the specialist visit from the referring physician yet 26% felt unprepared about what to expect. Trust in the referring physician was highly associated with the preparatory information patients received. Specialists gave good explanations about diagnosis and treatment, but 26% of patients got no information about follow-up. Trust in the specialist correlated highly with good explanations of diagnosis, treatment, and self-management.


Preparatory information from referring physicians influences the quality of the referral process, the subsequent coordination of care, and trust in the physician. Changes in the health care system can improve the information transfer process and improve coordination of care for patients.