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Factors influencing general practitioners decisions to refer Paediatric patients to the emergency department: a systematic review and narrative synthesis



Clinical guidelines are integral to a general practitioner’s decision to refer a paediatric patient to emergency care. The influence of non-clinical factors must also be considered. This review explores the non-clinical factors that may influence general practitioners (GPs) when deciding whether or not to refer a paediatric patient to the Emergency Department (ED).


A systematic review of peer-reviewed literature published from August 1980 to July 2019 was conducted to explore the non-clinical factors that influence GPs’ decision-making in referring paediatric patients to the emergency department. The results were synthesised using a narrative approach.


Seven studies met the inclusion criteria. Non-clinical factors relating to patients, GPs and health systems influence GPs decision to refer children to the ED. GPs reported parents/ caregivers influence, including their perception of severity of child’s illness, parent’s request for onward referral and GPs’ appraisal of parents’ ability to cope. Socio-economic status, GPs’ aversion to risk and system level factors such as access to diagnostics and specialist services also influenced referral decisions.


A myriad of non-clinical factors influence GP referrals of children to the ED. Further research on the impact of non-clinical factors on clinical decision-making can help to elucidate patterns and trends of paediatric healthcare and identify areas for intervention to utilise resources efficiently and improve healthcare delivery.

Peer Review reports


General practitioners (GPs) are often the first point of contact to healthcare, acting as a gateway to emergency, specialist, or other secondary care services in many countries [1, 2]. Rising utilization of emergency departments (ED) has been recorded internationally, leading to increased attention to reducing demand on emergency services [3, 4]. This debate is commonly framed in terms of the appropriateness of visits, and children have been identified as high users of the ED with conditions treatable in primary care [3, 5]. GPs contribute substantially to ED attendance rates through referrals. In the UK, GP referrals account for 21% of emergency admissions annually [6], while in Australia 8% of all presentations to the ED are referred by a GP [7]. In Ireland, referrals account for approximately 37–38% of paediatric ED attendances in 2015 [8]. However, little is known about the decision-making process behind GP referrals to the ED, particularly when it comes to children [9].

Significant variation in GP referral patterns to secondary care has been recorded, however the reasons are manifold and not fully understood [6, 10, 11]. Referrals are highly complex and present challenges to GPs, particularly in relation to children, with decisions made in a time pressured manner [6, 7]. While clinical aspects of the presenting condition are fundamental to the decision to refer, a multitude of other factors influence GP decision-making, including a complex interplay of clinical and non-clinical factors relating to the GP, the patient and health system considerations [10, 12].

Non-clinical factors have been identified in previous literature, although this is predominantly in relation to specialist and other secondary care services and not focused exclusively on paediatric patients [11, 13,14,15]. These include characteristics of the GP such as level of training received, or clinical experience [13]. This may be particularly pertinent with paediatric patients where lack of exposure to paediatric training may lead to a loss of confidence in treating children [7, 14]. Risk aversion, tolerance of uncertainty and the interaction between doctor and patient is also significant to understanding referral rates [15,16,17]. Patients’ expectations and pressure to refer may have some bearing, with parental requests reported as influencing referral decisions in a number of studies [2, 18, 19]. Finally, structural considerations such as the organisation of the health system, accessibility of specialist care, and waiting lists may also affect the GP’s referral rates [10, 20]. Insight into the trends and patterns of GP referrals is critical to informing health system policy and management, particularly in the context of rising pressure on EDs [7].

There is a paucity of research regarding the influence of non-clinical factors on GP decision-making regarding referrals. This review aims to address this by conducting a systematic review exploring the non-clinical factors that may impact a GP’s decision to refer a paediatric patient to the ED.


A systematic review was conducted to establish the non-clinical factors that influence the decision-making of GPs when referring paediatric patients to the ED. The review was conducted following the PRISMA framework [21]. The protocol was registered with the International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews (PROSPERO, registration no. CRD42020145233) [22].

Search strategy

Search terms were developed following a limited search of the databases Medline (Pubmed), CINAHL, Web of Science, Embase and PsycINFO. The search terms utilized are displayed in Additional File 1 (see Additional file 1). Five databases were used: Medline (Pubmed), CINAHL, Web of Science, Embase and PsycINFO. A modified search term strategy was employed for a secondary search of Google Scholar, of which the first 10 pages were selected and reviewed for relevance, and Lenus (an Irish database). References of included articles were also screened. At the outset of the search, the time span covered articles published in English from August 2010 until July 2019. However, as the initial screening produced a small number of studies and to ensure a broader literature was included in the review, the date parameter was extended to capture literature from 1980.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Prisma Flow Diagram

Inclusion and exclusion criteria and screening

The search strategy and screening process is documented in the PRISMA diagram [21] in Fig. 1. Both qualitative and quantitative primary studies published in English that aimed to analyse non-clinical factors that influence GP decision-making when referring paediatric patients to emergency services were included. Studies were excluded if they focused on adult populations only and were expert opinions or editorials. Title and abstracts of articles obtained from the searches were screened independently by two researchers (EN & CC) using the online review management software Covidence™ [23]. This was then followed by independent full text review by two researchers (EN & CC) and any conflicts were discussed and resolved.

Data extraction and quality assessment

Data was extracted by the primary researcher (CC) and a second researcher independently extracted data from three included articles (EN). Characteristics of the included studies are displayed in Tables 1 and 2. All included studies had 100% complete data sets.

Table 1 Details On Included Studies
Table 2 Study Design, Methods And Factors That Influenced Decision Making

Each study was quality assessed independently by two researchers (EN & CC) using the Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool (MMAT) [24]. The MMAT provides a framework for appraising quantitative, qualitative, and mixed method studies for methodological quality and rigor, addressing sources of data, analytical process, appropriateness of measurements, selection or researcher bias. Included studies scored moderate to high quality (≥50%). No studies were excluded based on their MMAT score. Detailed scoring is displayed in Additional file 2 (see Additional file 2).


Seven published studies were included in the systematic review [25,26,27,28,29,30,31]. The countries of origin were: U. S (n = 3), U. K (n = 2), Nigeria (n = 1) and Israel (n = 1). Studies conducted in the U. S and U. K make up the majority of the included studies therefore a hybrid private/public and universal healthcare systems are mostly represented. One study conducted in Israel outlines that ED visits are free when referred by a GP [25]. The study carried out in Nigeria does not report details on the health system [27]. Four studies [25, 26, 29, 31] utilized a qualitative methodological approach and the remaining three were quantitative [27, 28, 30]. Population sizes varied significantly; four studies had fewer than 50 participants [25, 26, 29, 31], one had 364 [30], and the remaining two just below 1000 participants [27, 28]. Further information is displayed in Table 1.

Factors that influence GPs decision-making when making referrals

Factors influencing GPs’ decision-making and preferences elicited are represented in Table 3.

Table 3 Factors That Influenced Gp Decision-Making When Referring Paediatric Patients To The Ed

Factors relating to patients

Parental/ caregivers influence

Parents and/or caregivers influence featured in four studies [25,26,27, 29]. GPs reported parental anxiety as an influencing factor, with higher levels of perceived anxiety prompting GPs to make the decision to refer [25, 29]. Perceived level of parents’ health literacy and capability to recognise worsening signs of their children’s condition and ability to provide care were reported [25]. GPs considered the parents’ perception of severity of illness, and in one study stated they trusted parents’ instincts about the deterioration of a child’s health and accepted their judgement that it warranted an ED visit [26]. Parental pressure to refer was reported in two studies [25, 27]. In the study conducted in Nigeria, parental request accounted for 15.8% of referrals [27]. GPs in another study stated this generated a “moral conflict” between pleasing and/or reassuring parents, and adherence to best medical practices [25].

Socio-economic status

Patients of lower socio-economic status were more likely to be referred to the ED in two studies [25, 29]. In one study this was attributed to providing financial help to parents as, in the Israeli context, attendance at the ED without a GP referral is paid out of pocket [25]. In one U. S study, patients with public health insurance were referred to the ED to access specialty care [31].

Age & Previous History

While not statistically significant, patients who were two years old or younger were more likely to be approved for a referral for a non-urgent ED visit and GPs considered the child’s previous admission history [30].

Factors relating to GPs

Risk aversion

“Erring on the side of caution” was reported by GPs who felt it was preferable to refer to the ED rather than risk patient’s health [26, 29]. GPs stated they like to be completely comfortable in sending a child home [29]. GPs cited relying on their “gut instinct” and “rule of thumb” protocols when considering referral [25, 29]. They reported practicing defensive medicine by considering legal implications, such as the risk of incurring lawsuits [25]. On the other hand, GPs working in the ED setting were less likely to utilize specialist services such as radiography or microbiology investigations, prescribe medications or refer to outpatient services compared to ED staff [28].

Preference for referral destination

A study with both paediatricians and GPs found that paediatricians held a preference for paediatric urgent care centres, while GPs were happy to refer to any urgent care centre [26].

System level factors

Time of day & Distance from ED

Findings in three studies indicated time of day was a factor when referring [25, 29, 30]. Children were more likely to be referred on the weekends in one study [25], and in another GPs approved a significantly higher proportion (58%; P < 0.01) of non-urgent ED visits due to “full office schedule” after 3.30 pm [30]. Before 3.30 pm, the most common reason was medical urgency [30]. Furthermore, GPs were more likely to deny rather than approve a non-urgent visit before noon [30]. GPs reported considering accessibility to primary services for their patients, and were more likely to refer those living in isolated areas [25].

Resource need

The lack of certain resources within primary services such as tests, treatments, expertise and funds was also reported [26, 27]. GPs immediately referred patients for perceived need of sutures, cauterizations and access to laboratories [26]. In the study carried out in Nigeria, a lack of funds to continue treatment (17.1%), lack of facilities (14.5%) and lack of expertise (10.4%) were reported as reasons for referrals [27]. Finally, GPs utilized the ED as a pathway to access outpatient specialty care for children who had public health insurance in the face of long waiting lists for specialists [31].


This systematic review makes a unique contribution due to its explicit focus on the non-clinical factors that impact GP decision-making about referrals of children to the ED. The literature synthesised suggests that along with clinical factors, non-clinical considerations relating to GPs, patients and health systems play a role in the decision-making process of GPs. While it may not be fully possible to disentangle the non-clinical issues from the clinical, it is worth isolating and examining them to understand how they influence referral decision-making. Variation of referral patterns and rates has drawn attention for some time now, although reasons for this are not fully understood, indicating they are varied, idiosyncratic and integral to the context. One of the notable findings is the small number of included studies, despite the inclusion of a broad date range, suggesting the impact of non-clinical factors on the decision-making process of GPs when referring children to the ED is an under-researched area.

As highlighted by this review, a myriad of complex factors beyond purely clinical considerations impact the GPs decision to refer. While some factors are applicable to both adult and children populations, certain factors may be more pertinent in the case of children. Parental influence featured prominently, reflecting previous research on parental or patient pressure to refer [2, 12, 15, 18, 19, 32]. When seeking unscheduled healthcare, parental anxiety may be considerably heightened leading them to seek reassurance [18, 25, 29]. This can stem from an obligation of responsibility for their children’s wellbeing and unwillingness to take risks, particularly among those who have had previous traumatic health experiences, dealing with symptoms they are unfamiliar with, or with younger children who cannot verbalize the source of discomfort or pain [33] .

Attending a primary care service before presenting to the ED is not compulsory, however in certain contexts, such as Ireland, a GP referral removes the cost of attending an ED. Parents may feel it is expedient to go beyond primary care services to emergency departments, due to their perception of urgency and an assumption that ED offers higher quality of care [34,35,36]. This review offers some insight regarding GPs reaction to parental request; while in one study GPs reported trust in parents’ instincts regarding their children’s health status, in another it generated a “moral conflict” for GPs [25, 26]. Consideration of a parent’s request for a referral shows respect for parent’s wishes regarding their children’s care [2]. Participation in medical decision- making improves quality of care and health outcomes [37], and has been shown to improve parents’ satisfaction and linked to reducing unnecessary antibiotic use for children [38]. On the other hand, GPs must balance this with the necessity of the referral and may feel uncomfortable in their gatekeeper role, highlighting the complexity of shared decision-making, particularly when it comes to referrals [6, 37, 39].

GPs reported experiencing professional uncertainty leading them to refer to the ED, echoing previous research [16, 17]. Erring on the side of caution may be pronounced when dealing with small children whose condition can deteriorate quickly. Research has shown GPs may have less confidence with paediatric patients due to a lack of paediatric training or experience in treating children [2, 7, 14].

Previous studies have highlighted ED attendance is more frequent among lower socio-economic groups and those with lower levels of educational attainment [11]. This review supports this finding, demonstrating that across contexts GPs reported being more likely to refer those of lower socio-economic status [25, 29]. One study showed how U. S public funded insurance recipients, who may not be in urgent need for medical attention, were referred to ensure timely access to specialist services [31]. This indicates ED utilization by those from lower socio-economic backgrounds is influenced by system factors and clinical decision-making, and not just patient health-seeking behaviour.

Health system factors have been attributed to non-urgent use of the ED by healthcare professionals [37]. This review shows the lack of diagnostic equipment and treatments available in primary care may contribute to GPs referrals to the ED [26, 27]. Additionally, one study highlighted that lack of capacity in primary care resulted in approval of non-urgent visits to the ED [30]. Non-urgent use of ED during normal business hours has been documented previously, demonstrating the need for enhanced access to primary care in order to redirect non-critical care from emergency to primary care [38]. This is especially relevant to paediatric patients as children are high users of EDs, many with conditions that could be treated in primary care [3]. As health systems differ vastly across different countries and contexts with divergence of access across a range of public and private health systems, these findings suggest the need for an international study of GPs across health systems to understand the influence of the structure and financing of health systems on GP decision-making processes, and therefore on the pattern of paediatric presentations to the ED [7].

Implications for policy and practice

Internationally, health systems are struggling to meet the demand on emergency departments, with healthcare planners and managers endeavouring to reduce the strain by eliminating non-urgent utilization [3, 4]. Strengthening primary care capacity and capabilities, through strategies such as increased supply and extended opening hours, can contribute to treating non-urgent cases in the community [3, 40]. This could address the pattern of referrals at certain times of the day and week, highlighted in this review. Enhanced paediatric training for GPs who experience professional uncertainty when treating children may lower referrals to the ED due to an aversion of risk. An alternative strategy could be the provision of remote consultations for GPs to seek advice from paediatricians. Stronger recognition of non-clinical factors and their impact on clinical decision-making is also essential during GP training. Greater awareness of various influences on clinical decision-making is vital to ensuring appropriate and excellent care for patients [41].


The findings of this review are limited primarily by the small number of included studies and the variation in study sample size. Literature on GP referral patterns is mostly based on referral to specialist services, and not to the emergency department, and often does not focus specifically on paediatric patients. The focus of this review was empirical studies and therefore policy documents have not been included, though it is accepted that this may shed further light on referral pathways.


The decision to refer a child to the ED is imbued with a complex interplay of parent, GP and structural factors integral to the context upon which that decision is made. Enhanced awareness of non-clinical factors on referral decision-making is crucial to understanding patterns of paediatric unscheduled healthcare and to planning services that respond to parent’s and children’s needs, whilst allowing GPs to make decisions in the best interest of the child. Literature examining referral variation is rather dated, suggesting up to date research is required to account for system changes in recent years. We have identified scope for further research, such as qualitative research with GPs, which can contribute to understanding the inter-play between primary and emergency services, pertinent in the context of rising paediatric presentations to the ED.

Availability of data and materials

Raw data was not generated for this systematic review. Data extracted and analysed in this study can be found in Table 2.



General Practitioner


Emergency department


Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool


Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses


United States


United Kingdom


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David Joyce, PhD; Centre for Interdisciplinary Research, Education and Innovation in Health Systems (IRIS), UCD School of Nursing, Midwifery & Health Systems, University College Dublin.


This study is funded by the Health Research Board (HRB) (Ref: NCHF-2017-009). The funding body had no role in Neither funding body were involved in the design or creation of this study.

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EN, BR-M, TMcD, ADB, GB and EMcA conceived the study. EN, BR-M, TMcD and CC designed and conducted the search for studies. EN and CC screened for eligibility criteria, appraised for quality, and extracted the data. EN, CC and RD drafted the initial manuscript, and TMcD, ADB, EMcA, RD and GB made important contributions to finalising the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ciara Conlon.

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Supplementary information

Additional file 1.

Key Terms & Boolean Operators.

Additional file 2.

Quality Assessment Using Mmat1.

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Conlon, C., Nicholson, E., Rodríguez-Martin, B. et al. Factors influencing general practitioners decisions to refer Paediatric patients to the emergency department: a systematic review and narrative synthesis. BMC Fam Pract 21, 210 (2020).

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  • Decision-making
  • Referrals
  • Paediatric
  • Unscheduled healthcare
  • Non-clinical factors