Referrals are a central component of the American health care system, defining the relationship among generalists, patients, and specialists. The dynamics of the referral process as they existed in a fee-for-service medical environment will evolve under managed care, but retain the basic 'Try-out' approach of the generalist and 'Rule-out' approach of the specialist. A managed care, contract-based health care system alters some of the assumptions on which the referral relationship has been structured. A four- step approach to assuring quality interactions among patient, generalist, and specialist within the managed care environment is described, including: (1) engage; (2) anticipate; (3) feedback; and (4) reassess. When the referral process is structured as suggested, it can be evaluated for quality and efficacy. Armed with mutual respect and understanding, the forces that polarized specialist and generalist care in the 1980s can be redirected to enhancing patient care in the 1990s.
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