The "gatekeeping" model of access to specialty care has been an essential managed care tool, intended to control costs of care and promote coordination between generalists and specialists.
To investigate the impact of removing gatekeeping on specialist utilization.
A capitated multispecialty group discontinued a gatekeeping system on April 1, 1998. We assessed the overall number and distribution of patient visits to primary care physicians and specialists and initial patient visits to specialists before and after the removal of gatekeeping. We performed focused analyses for specific specialties, children with chronic conditions, and children with specific diagnoses.
Elimination of gatekeeping was not associated with changes in the mean number of visits to specialists (0.28 visits per 6 months before and after gatekeeping was removed) or the percentage of all child visits to specialists (11.6% vs 12.1%; 95% confidence interval, 11.3%-11.9% vs 11.8%-12.4%). The proportion of all specialist visits that were initial consultations increased after gatekeeping was removed, from 30.6% (95% CI, 29.4%-31.8%) to 34.8% (95% CI, 33.6%-36.1%). Visits to any specialist by children with chronic conditions increased from 18.6% (95% CI, 17.7%-19.1%) to 19.8% (95% CI, 19.0%-20.7%). New patient visits to specialists by children with chronic conditions as a proportion of all specialist visits increased from 28.1% (95% CI, 25.9%-30.2%) to 32.3% (95% CI, 30.1%-34.5%).
Replacing a gatekeeping system with open access to all specialty physicians in a managed care organization resulted in minimal changes on the utilization of specialists. Visits to specialists by children with chronic conditions increased after the removal of gatekeeping.