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Referral Decision Making of General Practitioners: A Signal Detection Study

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Olga Kostopoulou, Martine Nurek, Simona Cantarella, Grace Okoli, Francesca Fiorentino, Brendan C. Delaney

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-31
Number of pages11
JournalMedical Decision Making
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2019

King's Authors


Background. Signal detection theory (SDT) describes how respondents categorize ambiguous stimuli over repeated trials. It measures separately “discrimination” (ability to recognize a signal amid noise) and “criterion” (inclination to respond “signal” v. “noise”). This is important because respondents may produce the same accuracy rate for different reasons. We employed SDT to measure the referral decision making of general practitioners (GPs) in cases of possible lung cancer. Methods. We constructed 44 vignettes of patients for whom lung cancer could be considered and estimated their 1-year risk. Under UK risk-based guidelines, half of the vignettes required urgent referral. We recruited 216 GPs from practices across England. Practices differed in the positive predictive value (PPV) of their urgent referrals (chance of referrals identifying cancer) and the sensitivity (chance of cancer patients being picked up via urgent referral from their practice). Participants saw the vignettes online and indicated whether they would refer each patient urgently or not. We calculated each GP’s discrimination (d ′) and criterion (c) and regressed these on practice PPV and sensitivity, as well as on GP experience and gender. Results. Criterion was associated with practice PPV: as PPV increased, GPs’c also increased, indicating lower inclination to refer (b = 0.06 [0.02–0.09]; P = 0.001). Female GPs were more inclined to refer than male GPs (b = −0.20 [−0.40 to −0.001]; P = 0.049). Average discrimination was modest (d′ = 0.77), highly variable (range, −0.28 to 1.91), and not associated with practice referral performance. Conclusions. High referral PPV at the organizational level indicates GPs’ inclination to avoid false positives, not better discrimination. Rather than bluntly mandating increases in practice PPV via more referrals, it is necessary to increase discrimination by improving the evidence base for cancer referral decisions.

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