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The American Journal of Managed Care December 2014
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Preconsultation Exchange in the United States: Use, Awareness, and Attitudes
Justin L. Sewell, MD, MPH; Katherine S. Telischak, MSc; Lukejohn W. Day, MD; Neil Kirschner, PhD; and Arlene Weissman, PhD
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Preconsultation Exchange in the United States: Use, Awareness, and Attitudes

Justin L. Sewell, MD, MPH; Katherine S. Telischak, MSc; Lukejohn W. Day, MD; Neil Kirschner, PhD; and Arlene Weissman, PhD
Internists reported frequent use of, and support for, preconsultation exchange to improve access to and efficiency of specialty care.
Demand for specialty care exceeds supply in many healthcare systems in the United States. Preconsultation exchange has the potential to increase access to specialty care, and increase its timeliness and efficiency, by triaging need and urgency and streamlining the previsit workup. We sought to characterize attitudes toward, use of, and concerns regarding preconsultation exchange among US internists.

Study Design
Prospective cross-sectional survey.

We administered a Web-based survey to a large national panel of US internists maintained by the American College of Physicians.

Response rate was 55% (N = 451) with minimal differences between responders and nonresponders. Of responders, only 13% were initially familiar with the term “preconsultation exchange,” but once defined, 28% were classified as frequent users, 40% as occasional users, and 32% as rare/never users. Internists used preconsultation exchange to: guide the prespecialty visit workup (78%), answer clinical questions without a patient visit to the specialist (71%), triage referral urgency (67%), and transfer referrals to a more appropriate specialty (47%). Responders supported multiple benefits of preconsultation exchange, but also reported concerns regarding reimbursement, liability, physicians taking personal responsibility for patient care, and inadequate exchange of clinical information. Compared with primary care physicians, specialists recognized more benefits of preconsultation exchange, but also expressed more concerns. The majority of responders reported increased willingness to use preconsultation exchange if specific remedies were applied.

Most US internists participate in preconsultation exchange and agree with its potential benefits. However, important concerns and barriers exist. Methods to reduce barriers to preconsultation exchange should be identified.

Am J Manag Care. 2014;20(12):e556-e564
Preconsultation exchange can improve access to, and timeliness and efficiency of, specialty care, particularly in resource-constrained settings. We surveyed a national panel of practicing internists in the United States to assess attitudes toward, and use of, preconsultation exchange.
  • Only 13% of responders were familiar with the term “preconsultation exchange,” but once defined, 68% reported at least occasional use.
  • Responders supported multiple benefits of preconsultation exchange.
  • Specialists recognized more benefits of preconsultation exchange than did primary care physicians, but also reported more concerns.
  • Survey responders reported increased likelihood of using preconsultation exchange in the setting of specific remedies.
Demand for specialty care in the United States continues to rise, with the past decade witnessing a 150% increase in ambulatory specialty care referrals.1 Demand may increase further as millions of Americans become newly insured through healthcare reform.2,3 Despite high demand, specialty care remains among the most limited of medical resources, particularly in resource-constrained settings such as the healthcare safety net.4 “Preconsultation exchange” (PCE) may reduce this supplydemand mismatch by increasing access to, and efficiency of, specialty care.5

Described by the American College of Physicians (ACP) in 2010, PCE is a clinical interaction between a primary care provider and a specialist that occurs prior to, or in lieu of, an in-person ambulatory specialty care evaluation.5 Although PCE applies to the well-established concept of “curbside consultation” (in which a physician provides informal advice to another physician without personally evaluating a patient),6,7 it covers additional functions, including: determining need for formal specialty consultation, answering a clinical question without an in-person visit to the specialist, providing guidance to ensure a thorough prespecialty visit workup, triaging urgency of referrals, and redirecting referrals to a more appropriate specialty.5 PCE can facilitate provision of specialty care without a formal in-person visit,8,9 thereby increasing access to specialty care. For patients requiring inperson specialty evaluation, PCE can be used to streamline the prespecialty visit workup, subsequently increasing the efficiency of specialty care.

Research describing PCE remains limited.8-10 Because formal application of PCE may increase in use in the setting of healthcare reform,11 physicians’ attitudes and concerns should be understood. We designed a survey-based study among a large cohort of internists with several specific aims. We sought to characterize internists’ overall awareness and use of PCE, and to identify personal and practice characteristics associated with frequency of PCE use; we also sought to characterize perceived benefits of, and concerns related to, PCE. Because PCE is a form of specialty care, we hypothesized that primary care and specialty physicians would perceive different benefits and concerns/barriers, so we specifically compared benefits and barriers between these 2 groups.


Study Design and Survey Population

We performed a cross-sectional survey among a large national panel of internists in the United States. Initiated in 2011, the Internal Medicine Insider Research Panel is a community of ACP members who participate in research surveys distributed by the ACP Research Center. The panel includes internists practicing both primary and specialty care, but does not include noninternist physicians (eg, family medicine specialists, surgeons, neurologists, and psychiatrists). One percent of ACP members (including trainees) are invited to participate via stratified randomization to ensure generalizability to ACP membership. Members who complete surveys are awarded credit toward gift cards.

The target population was internists providing direct ambulatory patient care (including both primary care and specialty care physicians). Of the 1012 panel members, 828 provided direct ambulatory patient care and were eligible to participate.

Survey Development and Distribution

An existing validated instrument was not available. Our instrument was initially developed by 2 authors (JS, KT), using for reference prior ACP survey questions, the ACP position paper on the patient-centered medical home and PCE,5 and discussions with health services research faculty at the University of California, San Francisco. Multiple survey iterations were reviewed, tested, and edited for content validity by all authors and by the aforementioned faculty.

Survey questions addressed: demographics; personal characteristics; professional and practice characteristics; familiarity with and use of PCE; and perceived benefits of, concerns about, and barriers to PCE. Regarding the latter data, subjects were asked to rate their agreement with 6 statements describing potential concerns or barriers to using PCE. Subjects indicating agreement with each concern/barrier statement were given a specific remedy and were asked whether that specific remedy would increase their likelihood of using PCE. These concern/barrier statements and proposed remedies were conceptualized and edited for content validity during the instrument development process described above.

On May 6, 2013, panel members were sent the survey invitation by e-mail with a Web link to the survey, which was administered online using the EFS Panel Program (QuestBack USA, Bridgeport, Connecticut). The survey remained open for 2 weeks, and 3 reminder e-mails were sent to nonresponders—responders were awarded $10 in gift credit. A completed survey was defined a priori as answering the question describing use of PCE (survey question 11, eAppendix, available at

Data Management and Analysis

Proportions and means were calculated to summarize data; few data were missing (these are reported in footnotes at the end of tables).

To quantify use of PCE, subjects were asked, “How often, if ever, do you participate in preconsultation exchange as either the referring primary care provider or the receiving specialist?” (PCE was defined at the top of survey section 3, eAppendix.) Subjects responded using a 5-point Likert scale including options “always,” “often,” “sometimes,” “rarely,” and “never.” Three pre-specified groups were used for comparative analyses: “frequent users” (“always” or “often” used PCE), “occasional users” (“sometimes” used PCE), and “rare/never users” (“rarely” or “never” used PCE).

We asked subjects to self-identify as a primary care physician or specialty physician. For the purposes of this study, we conceptualized primary/specialty care status as being primarily related to their referral practices. Specifically, we defined primary care physicians as more often making referrals to other providers, and specialty physicians as more often receiving referrals from other providgeners (survey question 6, eAppendix). We used this method because, given the heterogeneity of physicians’ practices even within a single specialty, their primary area of training might not represent their referral practices and could therefore result in misclassification. For example, physicians trained in certain “specialty” areas (such as geriatrics) might consider themselves primary rather than specialty care physicians.

Categorical variables were compared with χ2 tests. Continuous variables were compared using ANOVA and/or 2-tailed t tests. P <.05 was the threshold used for statistical significance. Statistical analyses were performed using SPSS version 21 (IBM, Armonk, New York) and Stata version 11 (StataCorp, College Station, Texas).

Ethical Review

The Institutional Review Board of the University of California, San Francisco, reviewed this study and granted it exempt status.


Response Characteristics

Of 828 eligible panel members, 451 (54.5%) completed the survey. Of these, 313 (69.4%) classified themselves as primary care physicians and 138 (30.6%) as specialty physicians. Diverse “primary areas of focus” were represented (eAppendix Table 1). The 451 survey responders did not differ from the 377 nonresponders in age, level of training, or primary versus specialty care (eAppendix Table 2). Responders were 7% less likely than nonresponders to work in private practice (P = .04), but private practice was the most common setting for responders and nonresponders alike.

Awareness and Use of PCE

Only 58 (12.9%) of 451 survey responders were familiar with the term “preconsultation exchange,” with no differences between primary care and specialty physicians (P =.82). However, when this term was subsequently defined (survey question 11, Supplemental Figure), many reported using PCE. Of responders, 127 (28.2%) could be classified as frequent users, 178 (39.5%) as occasional users, and 146 (32.4%) as rare/never users.

Some personal and practice characteristics differed among frequent, occasional, and rare/never PCE users. Rare/never users reported fewer years in practice than occasional or frequent users, and frequent users were more likely to work in a health maintenance organization than occasional or rare/never users (Table 1). PCE use was similar among primary care physicians and specialists. Frequent users of PCE were more likely to utilize electronic communication with other providers and with patients. However, only 4% of physicians received protected time for such electronic communication.

Uses of PCE

Responders reported using multiple functions of PCE (Table 2), most commonly: guiding the previsit workup to prepare the patient for specialty assessment (314, 78.3%); addressing a clinical question without a formal visit to the specialist (283, 70.6%); and triaging the urgency of referred patients (268, 66.8%). Telephone (349, 87%) and electronic health record (186, 46.4%) were the most common mediums used for PCE (Table 2).

Among the 50 responders who never used PCE, 36 (72%) indicated this was due to lack of availability. Of those, 17 (47.2%) would definitely or probably use PCE if it were available to them (Table 2).

PCE Benefits

A majority of responders agreed with 6 of the 9 proposed benefits of PCE, and more than 40% agreed with the other 3. Specialists were more likely than primary care physicians to agree with 5 of the 9 proposed benefits of PCE (Table 3).

PCE Concerns/Barriers and Remedies

Subjects were asked to rate their agreement with 6 specific statements describing proposed concerns or barriers related to PCE (Table 4). Of responders, 337 (74.7%) agreed financial reimbursement for PCE might be inadequate; 317 (70.3%) agreed physicians should take personal responsibility for all patients referred to them; 208 (46.1%) agreed exchange of clinical information using PCE might be inadequate; 207 (45.9)% agreed there was not enough time in their day to participate in PCE; 189 (41.9%) agreed PCE may pose significant liability risks; and 139 (30.8)% agreed their medical record would not facilitate PCE.

Different concerns were expressed by primary care and specialty care physicians. Nearly twice as many specialists were concerned about liability related to PCE compared with primary care physicians. Specialists also expressed greater concerns regarding financial reimbursement, inadequate exchange of clinical information, and adequacy of the medical record (Table 4).

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