In 1996 a specialized palliative care unit was opened at the Linköping University Hospital in Sweden and different patterns of referral from different parts of the district soon became apparent. The aim of this study was to investigate the mechanisms underlying these patterns. During the first 6 months, 133 referrals were analyzed. The stated reason for referral and the actual content of care were, in each case, classified into five groups: symptom control, terminal care, rehabilitation, respite care, and special treatment and investigations. The stated reason for referral and the content of care coincided in three groups: terminal care, rehabilitation, and special treatment and investigations. When symptom control was the stated reason for referral, it was the main content of care in only 33 of 78 cases, while terminal care was the actual main content in 28 of 78 cases. Variations in patterns of referral were also observed in the different hospital-based home care teams (HBHC). In our study differences in the three HBHC teams regarding knowledge, skill, and attitudes might be reflected in variations in patterns of referral. The results illustrate the need for further education regarding referral indications, improvements in documentation of reason for referral, improved communication between HBHC teams and the palliative care unit, and improved prognostication at the end of life.