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BACKGROUND: Specialist outreach clinics in general practice, in which hospital-based specialists hold outpatient clinics in general practitioners' (GPs) surgeries, are one example of a shift in services from secondary to primary care. AIM: To describe specialist outreach clinics held in fundholding general practices in two specialties from the perspective of patients, GPs, and consultants, and to estimate the comparative costs of these outreach clinics and equivalent hospital outpatient clinics. METHOD: Data were collected from single outreach sessions in fundholding practices and single outpatient clinics held by three dermatologists and three orthopaedic surgeons. Patients attending the outreach and outpatient clinics, GPs from practices in which the outreach clinics were held, and the consultants all completed questionnaires. Managers in general practice and hospital finance departments supplied data for the estimation of costs. RESULTS: Initial patient questionnaires were completed by 83 (86%) outreach patients and 81 (75%) outpatients. The specialist outreach clinics sampled provided few opportunities for increased interaction between specialists and GPs. Specialists were concerned about the travelling time resulting from their involvement in outreach clinics. Waiting times for first appointments were shorter in some outreach clinics than in outpatient clinics. However, patients were less concerned about the location of their consultation with the specialist than they were about the interpersonal aspects of the consultation. There was some evidence of a difference in casemix between the dermatology patients seen at outreach and those seen at outpatient clinics, which confounded the comparison of total costs associated with the two types of clinic. However, when treatment and overhead costs were excluded, the marginal cost per patient was greater in outreach clinics than in hospital clinics for both specialties studied. CONCLUSION: The study suggests that a cautious approach should be taken to further development of outreach clinics in the two specialties studied because the benefits of outreach clinics to patients, GPs and consultants may be modest, and their higher cost means that they are unlikely to be cost-effective.