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Audit of consultant physicians’ reply letters for referrals to clinics in a tertiary teaching hospital

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Abstract Background:

Doctors referring patients to consultant physicians seek reply letters which both educate and assist in ongoing patient management. Highly desirable attributes in specialist letters include clearly stated and justified: (i) diagnostic formulations, (ii) management regimens, (iii) use of clinical investigations, (iv) prog-nostic statements, (v) contingency plans and (vi) follow-up arrangements. Aim: 

To explicitly evaluate the quality of reply letters for new patients referred to clinics at a tertiary teaching hospital. Methods: 

Letters were sampled from outpatient clinics of 10 different medical specialties at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, Australia. Reply letters for new patient referrals between 1 August 2000 and 31 October 2000 were retrieved, from which data were abstracted to calculate the proportion of letters satisfying prespecified quality attributes. Results: 

Of 297 new patient referrals, reply letters were retrieved for 204 (69%). Of these, 147 (72%) referrals were accompanied by a referral letter, mostly (113/147; 77%) from general practitioners. For 120 referrals involving diagnostic issues, 69 (56%) letters stated a diagnostic formulation. Of 114 letters recommending further clinical investigations, 61 (53%) described a rationale for such testing. In 125 cases where therapy was a key issue, 83 (66%) letters recommended changes to current treatment for which reasons were specified in 46 (55%) cases, and contingency plans provided in 13 (16%). Prognosis was mentioned in only 18 (9%) cases. Follow-up arrangements were detailed in 123 (60%) letters. Assessments of patient understanding and likely adherence to therapy were stated in less than 15% of ­letters. Conclusions:

Opportunities exist for improving quality of consultant physicians’ reply letters in terms of greater use of problem lists, contingency plans, prognostic statements and patient-centred assessments, as well as more frequent enunciation of consultants’ reasoning behind requests for further tests and changes to current management. Use of structured letter templates may facilitate more consistent inclusion of key information to referring doctors. (Intern Med J 2004; 34: 31−37)

Keywords: audit; letters; quality; referral; specialist

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Internal Medicine Department and Clinical Services Evaluation Unit, 2: Department of Health Information Management Services, Princess Alexandra Hospital and

Publication date: January 1, 2004


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