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One year's referrals from general practitioners to a social services department were studied. There was a low referral rate and a bias towards women, the elderly and the less affluent. The referrals were predominantly made for practical help with problems of ill health. A high proportion of clients were allocated to non-social work staff, and the social service intervention, generally of short duration, showed a sympathetic response to the practical requests of general practitioners. The limited use of social workers by doctors is considered to be the result of ignorance or scepticism about psychodynamic social work skills. Closer liaison between general practitioners and social workers, and a clearer presentation by social workers of their professional skills, are suggested solutions to this problem.