Objective — To describe requests of admissions to eight General Hospital Psychiatric Wards (SPDC) in Lombardy, Italy, during November 1995. Design — Descriptive prospective multicenter study. Setting — SPDCs of Busto Arsizio (VA), Calcinate (BG), Desio (MI), Magenta (MI), Merate (LC), Milano San Paolo I, Pavia, Treviglio (BG). The global catchment area sums up to 11% of the whole regional area, and to 18% of the population. Main outcome measures — We used a previously developed flowchart with two major key points: who decided to go to the hospital? Did a doctor confirm this initiative? Main sociodemographic characteristics, ICD10 diagnosis and previous psychiatric admissions were collected for each admission. Results — Admissions were 315, patients 246. In 9.5% of cases patients asked for admission without any medical advice. In one third of cases the ward psychiatrist was the first doctor to visit the patient. Compulsive admissions (TSO) were 45 (14.3%), although patient's initiative lacked in 55.6% of cases. A referral from Outpatient Departments (CPS) was present in 28.2%. First-ever admitted were 63 (25.6%): 20.7% sent by CPS, 16% by GPs, 11% by other non psychiatric wards. Conclusions — Although Goldberg & Huxley's model described General Hospital Psychiatric Wards as the last level of intervention, our data show that Italian SPDCs work as «front line» services: less than one admission out of two were referred by a psychiatrist. Problems raised by «self-referred» patients are conspicuous and an evaluation of the filtering function of CPSs seems necessary. In this regard, a comparison with different modalities of Department organization could be useful.