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To determine the extent of non-attendance at first hospital appointments 269 hospital referrals made in one practice over 14 weeks were analysed retrospectively. Non-attendance was more likely among patients referred to outpatient departments than to casualty or for admission. Fifteen per cent (41/269) of all patients and 20% (33/167) of outpatients failed to keep their initial appointments. Prolonged waiting times from referral to appointment were significantly related to non-attendance. Twenty weeks after the last referral had been made no communication had been received by the practice for 24% (61/252) of all referral letters received by the hospital. Minimum delays to appointments and improved communication between hospitals and general practitioners would help general practitioners to make appropriate referrals and improve compliance.