INTRODUCTION: Referrals between generalists and specialists are a central component of the health care system and necessitate effective communication between the involved providers. Despite the high prevalence of patient referrals and their crucial role in continuity and quality of care, the medical literature demonstrates that generalists may receive little or no information about the care their patients received and little information about the appropriateness of the referral or recommendations for follow-up care. General practitioners (GPs) prefer teaching that is directly related to their clinical work rather than traditional continuing education such as formal lectures. The purpose of this review is to assess the role of referral reply letters in the continuing education of GPs. METHODS: A comprehensive literature search was conducted to November 2001 using MEDLINE, EMBASE, the Cochrane Library, and the Research and Development Resource Base developed by Continuing Education, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, to identify studies that examined the use of referral letters for the transfer of information from specialists to referring physicians. Data on methodology, unit of analysis, main outcome measures, and results were extracted. RESULTS: Of 1,250 articles retrieved, 9 met the eligibility criteria. Three of these analyzed the content of referral reply letters and 6 described the results of surveys of general and specialty physicians. DISCUSSION: Little educational content is currently included in letters from specialists to referring GPs. GPs are receptive to the use of referral replies as sources of learning.
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