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When to Repatriate? Clinicians’ Perspectives on the Transfer of Patient Management from Specialty to Primary Care

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A Capsule Commentary to this article was published on 12 July 2014



Subspecialty ambulatory care visits have doubled in the past 10 years and nearly half of all visits are for follow-up care. Could some of this care be provided by primary care providers (PCPs)?


To determine how often PCPs and specialists agree that a mutual patient’s condition could be managed exclusively by the PCP, and to understand PCPs’ perspectives on factors that influence decisions about ‘repatriation,’ or the transfer of patient management to primary care.


A mixed method approach including paired surveys of PCPs and specialists about the necessity for ongoing specialty care of mutual patients, and interviews with PCPs about care coordination practices and reasons for differing opinions with specialists.


One hundred and eighty-nine PCPs and 59 physicians representing five medicine subspecialties completed paired surveys for 343 patients. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 16 PCPs.


For each patient, PCPs and specialists were asked, “Could this diagnosis be managed exclusively by the PCP?”


Specialists and PCPs agreed that transfer to primary care was appropriate for 16 % of patients, whereas 36 % had specialists and PCPs who agreed that ongoing specialty care was appropriate. Specialists were half as likely as PCPs to identify patients as appropriate for transfer to primary care. PCPs identified several factors that influence the likelihood that patients will be transferred to primary care, including perceived patient preferences, limited access to physician appointments, excessive workload, inter-clinician communication norms, and differences in clinical judgment. We group these factors into two domains: ‘push-back’ and ‘pull-back’ to primary care.


At a large academic medical center, approximately one in six patients receiving ongoing specialty care could potentially be managed exclusively by a PCP. PCPs identified several non-clinical factors to explain continuation of specialty care when patient transfer to PCP is clinically appropriate.

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We would like to express gratitude to the many clinicians who shared their perspectives with us. We also thank Chartis, Inc. for their assistance with survey administration and Gina Intinarelli for her ongoing support and encouragement.


Support for this study came through existing clinical operations and evaluation initiatives sponsored by the UCSF Medical Center, the UCSF Department of Medicine Ambulatory Care Operations and Innovations Program, and the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment (DSRIP) Program. None of these groups were involved in the design, conduct, collection, management, analysis or interpretation of the data. We did not require their approval of the manuscript or decision to submit.


Preliminary results of the study reported here were presented at the annual meeting of the Society of General Internal Medicine in Denver, CO in April 2013.

Conflict of Interest

Dr. Gonzales serves as Medical Advisor to Phreesia, Inc. To the best of our knowledge, the authors do not have any additional conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

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Correspondence to Sara L. Ackerman PhD, MPH.

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Ackerman, S.L., Gleason, N., Monacelli, J. et al. When to Repatriate? Clinicians’ Perspectives on the Transfer of Patient Management from Specialty to Primary Care. J GEN INTERN MED 29, 1355–1361 (2014).

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