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What is a referral?

4-minute read

Key facts

  • A referral is a letter from your doctor to another health professional or health service.
  • Most referrals are from GPs to specialists and last for 12 months.
  • If you have a referral, Medicare should cover part of the costs for further tests or treatment.

What is a referral?

A referral is a letter from your doctor or health professional to another health professional or health service. Referrals are made to get expert help with the diagnosis or treatment of your health problem.

Most referral letters are written by your family doctor (general practitioner, or GP). Referrals can be made to:

Who can make a referral?

Referrals can be made by health professionals such as:

  • doctors
  • dentists
  • nurse practitioners
  • midwives
  • physiotherapists
  • optometrists
  • psychologists

What information does a specialist referral include?

Your referral should include:

  • up-to-date information about your health issue
  • the date of the referral
  • the reason for the referral
  • the name, contact details and signature of the person writing the referral

You can choose which specialist you want to be referred to. You can also ask your doctor to recommend someone.

Your doctor can address the referral to a particular person. Sometimes they can make a general referral — this is when they write the referral without using the name of a particular specialist. An example would be writing 'Dear psychiatrist' instead of a name.

How do I get a referral?

Make an appointment with your doctor to talk about your health issues. You can ask your doctor to write you a referral. They will be able to advise you on which type of specialist you need to see.

How much will it cost to see the specialist?

If you have a referral, Medicare should cover at least part of the cost of further tests or treatment advice.

It's always a good idea to ask the cost when you book your appointment.

If you have private health insurance, this may cover some of your costs, depending on what your referral is for. Private health insurance does not cover:

  • visits with specialists in their rooms
  • imaging and tests to diagnose a condition

It's best to check with your insurance company to see what they will cover.

What happens if you visit a specialist without a referral?

Many specialists will still see you, although some might not. Medicare will not cover any costs if you visit a specialist without a referral.

How long does a referral last?

Most referrals from GPs to specialists last for 12 months. This amount of time should cover a single course of treatment for your health condition. The referral covers all of your visits to the specialist for that condition.

Some people need longer-term care, such as for chronic (ongoing) health conditions. In these cases, your GP can write a referral beyond 12 months. They could also write the referral with no end date.

If you develop a new health issue, you will need a new referral.

Sometimes a specialist may want to refer you to another specialist. These referrals are usually limited to 3 months.

Sharing information and privacy

Your referring doctor or health professional will give the specialist information about you and your health condition.

The specialist that you see will send back details of your treatments and their advice to your doctor. All your medical information is private and confidential.

If you feel uncomfortable with this, talk to your referring doctor or health professional.

How do I get a second opinion?

Sometimes you may be unhappy with a diagnosis or feel there might be better treatment choices. Do not be afraid to ask your doctor to refer you to another specialist for a second opinion.

A second opinion can help you have peace of mind or give you another point of view. You have the right to ask for as many opinions or referrals as you want.

Resources and support

There is more information on referrals at Services Australia.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2023


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