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BACKGROUND: The professional relationship between general practitioners (GPs) and hospital consultants (sometimes referred to as 'specialists') is important in a health care system based upon the generalist as the first point of contact for patients and the gatekeeper for hospital services. This relationship has been the subject of considerable interest over the years, but little empirical research has been carried out. AIM: To investigate the professional relationship in terms of the balance between cooperation and conflict between GPs and specialists in clinical contact. METHOD: A qualitative study using 24 semistructured interviews and four focus group interviews with a purposeful sample of clinicians working in the south-west of England. A content analysis of the data was performed. RESULTS: There is a high level of mutual respect and cooperation between the two branches of the profession and a strong desire to build a personal relationship over a long period of time. There are few areas of significant disagreement; indeed, most members of both branches of the profession try hard to deal with, or avoid, potential conflict. CONCLUSION: The professional relationship between GPs and specialists is better than the literature and anecdotal stories might suggest.