Background: Visiting-specialist clinics (specialist outreach) have the potential to overcome some of the substantial access barriers faced by disadvantaged rural, remote, and Indigenous communities, but the effectiveness of outreach clinics has not been assessed outside urban and non-disadvantaged settings. We aimed to assess the effects of outreach clinics on access, referral patterns, and care outcomes in remote communities in Australia.

Methods: We undertook a population-based observational study of regular surgical, ophthalmological, gynaecological, and ear, nose, and throat outreach visits, compared with hospital clinics alone, on access, referral practices, and outcomes for the populations of three remote Indigenous communities in northern Australia for 11 years. We assessed all new non-emergency potential specialist surgical cases who presented initially between Jan 1, 1990, and Jan 1, 2001. The effects of outreach clinics on the proportion of patients referred, the time from referral to initial specialist consultation, and the rates of community-based and hospital-based procedures were analysed using logic regression and Cox proportional hazard models.

Findings: 2339 new surgical problems presented in 2368 people between 1990 and 2001. Outreach improved the rate of referral completion (adjusted hazard ratio 1•41, 95% CI 1•07–1•86) and the risk of timely completion according to the urgency of referral (adjusted relative risk 1•30, 1•05–1•53). Outreach had no significant effect on initiation of elective referrals, but there were 156 opportunistic presentations on outreach clinic days. Specialist investigations and procedures in community clinics removed the need for many patients to travel to hospital, and outreach consultations were associated with a reduced rate of procedures that needed hospital admission (adjusted hazard ratio 0•67, 0•43–1•03).

Interpretation: Specialist outreach visits to remote disadvantaged Indigenous communities in Australia improve access to specialist consultations and procedures without increasing elective referrals or demands for hospital inpatient services.