A clinical referral is essentially a request to transfer patient care from one clinician or healthcare service to another and is vital information that enables the communication and collaboration required to deliver the most appropriate care and treatment to the patient. The aim of clinical referrals is to ensure patients are referred to the right healthcare service or specialist and that relevant clinical information is shared enabling timely decision making.
An alarming number of healthcare organizations around the world are still using fax machines to send and receive clinical referrals. One of the major problems with a paper-based referrals system is that it’s almost impossible to track the referral process and ensure that every referral is received and actioned. Some referrals simply get lost and clinicians are not aware, unless a patient brings the situation to their attention.
A lost or slowly processed referral has the potential to cause life-threatening harm to a patient, or a delay in them receiving care or follow-up. This can put their long-term health at risk, often without the patient or family knowing until it’s too late.
An electronic referrals solution offers several important benefits to both clinicians and patients:
1. Reduced patient and clinical risk
Electronic referrals provide the ability to view, update and track a referral, giving clinicians more visibility of a patient’s care. It sounds simple, and hard to believe that it doesn’t happen already, but once a referral is sent off via fax or post, a clinician will have very limited visibility of its outcomes.
Faxed referrals also present clinical risk as they contain sensitive patient information which can be misplaced or fall into the wrong hands. A patient’s referral containing personal information could end up lying in a paper tray, read by whoever picks it up. This lack of patient privacy and security illustrates the need to replace an antiquated manual process with secure messaging systems to mitigate clinical risk.
2. Reduction in duplicate referrals and referral processing time
The speed of processing time in an electronic solution means greater surety that the patient referral has occurred. In addition, the instant advice received back to the referrer often results in the patient not having to visit hospital – benefiting the patient, the primary care providers and reducing load on the hospital.
3. Increased legibility, relevance and accuracy of information
New capabilities such as easily configurable forms and standard workflows are an important part of an e-referrals solution as they increase accuracy, provide up-to-date information, reduce omissions of key information and decrease transcription errors.
4. Improved communication between healthcare providers
Moving to an electronic system significantly reduces manual processes and provides standardization across providers. It can also improve communication by sending a copy of a clinical referral and the outcome to the patient’s GP. This is a huge improvement in ‘between services’ and ‘between setting’ communication, which allows consistent grading to occur, and increases visibility.
5. Enhanced clinical decision support
An e-referrals solution can integrate with a regional electronic health record (EHR) or Health Information Exchange (HIE) to enable healthcare organizations to leverage the benefits of comprehensive access to the patient data that an EHR provides. Implementing an electronic referrals solution on top of an EHR allows further care coordination to occur, painting a clearer picture of the patient’s health for clinicians, and ensuring a patient’s care is managed efficiently.
The Auckland region in New Zealand has streamlined their referrals process by using an electronic system. The three District Health Boards (DHBs) of the Auckland region – Auckland, Counties Manukau and Waitemata – together serve over 1.5 million people. Each DHB has particular areas of specialty and population profiles. This, in conjunction with the close proximity of the DHBs, means there is a large amount of migration and crossover of patients as they move between providers.
There was a high number of paper-based referrals being sent between the DHBs and health providers across Auckland. Implementing an electronic referral system across the region resulted in improved communication and decreased processing time of referrals. The implemented solution integrates information across the whole health system with standardized referral templates and simplified workflows. Healthcare providers can now immediately view relevant referral information, reducing duplication and errors.
To learn more about electronic referrals in Auckland, read our case study here.