A comparison was made of initial assessment, treatment, and pattern of care of two groups of non-psychotic patients, referred to a Central London psychiatric outpatient department. The patients, none of whom had been in recent psychiatric treatment, were differentiated into those receiving short-term care (less than one year) and those having long-term care (greater than one year). Chronic psychiatric disorders predominated in both groups. It was also common to have physical illness and contact with other hospital departments. Short-term care consisted of very brief contact for 70% of patients, and psychiatrists seemed unable to engage these referrals in treatment. Long-term attendance was associated with acutely ill young, or chronically ill older patients, more active initial intervention, and referral within the same hospital group. Follow-up revealed that long-term patients reported little symptomatic improvement, experienced considerable disruption in course of care, made increased demands on all aspects of psychiatric service, and often proved to have personality disturbance and social problems that were not perceived on initial contact. Types of intervention and their effects on other hospital departments were examined.