Understanding the impact of a multispecialty electronic consultation service on family physician referral rates to specialists: a randomized controlled trial using health administrative data

Published: June 10, 2019
Category: Bibliography
Authors: Amir Afkham, Catherine Deri Armstrong, Claire E. Kendall, Clare Liddy, Erin Keely, Isabella Moroz, Monica Taljaard
Countries: Canada
Language: English
Types: Care coordination, Population Health
Settings: Health Plan, PCP



Electronic consultation (eConsult) services are secure online applications facilitating provider-to-provider communication. They have been found to improve access to specialist care. However, little is known about eConsult’s impact on family physicians’ referral rates to specialty care. The objective of this study was to assess the impact of a multispecialty eConsult service on referral rates from primary care.


In this parallel-arm, randomized controlled trial, we recruited primary care providers across Ontario not previously enrolled with eConsult. We randomly assigned participants to intervention and control arms. Participants in the intervention arm received access to eConsult for a period of 1 year while those in the control arm received no access to eConsult. The main outcome was specialist referral rate, expressed as the total number of referrals to (1) specialties available through eConsult, and (2) all medical specialties, per 100 patients seen. Multivariable negative binomial regression analysis was used to evaluate the effect of the intervention before and after adjusting for provider characteristics, using health administrative data.


One hundred and thirteen participants were randomized (56 to control and 57 to intervention). For the primary outcome (referrals to eConsult specialties), the results show a statistically significant reduction in the number of referrals in both arms (control-arm Rate Ratio (RR), 0.85, 95% CI 0.79 to 0.91; intervention-arm RR, 0.80, 95% CI 0.74 to 0.85; unadjusted and adjusted RR values almost identical), as compared to the baseline data collected during the 12-month period before randomization, with a non-statistically significant 6% greater reduction in referrals in the intervention arm, compared to the control arm (unadjusted RR 0.94, 95% CI 0.85 to 1.03; adjusted RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.85 to 1.03).


Our randomized controlled trial of a multispecialty eConsult service demonstrated inconclusive results in terms of the impact of eConsult on physician referral rates. Findings are discussed in light of important limitations associated with conducting randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of complex interventions in the primary care context with intent to inform the design and analysis of future trials.

primary care, specialist referral, health systems, wait times, access to care

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