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What is a referral?

3-minute read

A referral is a written request from one health professional to another health professional or health service, asking them to diagnose or treat you for a particular condition.

What a referral does

A referral provides information about you and your condition so that:

  • the person you are being referred to doesn’t have to ask so many questions
  • they are aware of relevant background information
  • they know exactly what they are being asked to do

A referral is also used to indicate that the consultation or test you’re being referred for is clinically important, and that Medicare should cover at least part of the cost.

Most referrals from general practitioners to specialists are limited to 12 months. Referrals from specialists and consultant physicians to other specialists are limited to 3 months unless the patient is admitted to hospital.

But if you have a chronic (continuing) health condition, such as glaucoma or kidney disease, that needs ongoing treatment, you can ask your doctor for a referral for an indefinite period.

When might I need a referral?

Your health professional might refer you to someone else if:

  • they believe you need expertise that the other person has
  • they believe you need treatment that the other person can give
  • they believe you need tests or investigations

For example, someone with pregnancy complications may be referred to an obstetrician, or a person with cancer may be referred to an oncologist and surgeon.

You are likely to need a medical referral or request to:

  • see a specialist
  • get x-rays or use other diagnostic imaging services
  • use pathology services, such as blood tests

Who can make a referral?

Referrals can be made by doctors, dentists and certain allied health professionals – nurse practitioners, midwives, physiotherapists, osteopaths and psychologists.

Some services can only be ordered by a particular specialist. For example, you may need a referral by a specialist for certain types of MRI scans.

How to get a referral

Ask your general practitioner or doctor to write you a referral.

You can choose the individual specialist you want to be referred to or ask your doctor to recommend someone. The doctor can address it to a particular person or make a general referral without using the name of the specialist (for example, addressing it to “Dear psychiatrist”.)

If your regular GP knows you well, they might be happy to provide a referral without seeing you in person.

But in general, it is better to make an appointment to get a referral. That way, you are more likely to have the referral contain the sort of information you want it to.

Getting a second or further opinion

If you are unhappy with a diagnosis or feel there might be better treatment options, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor to refer you to another specialist for a second opinion.

What happens if you visit a specialist without a referral? 

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

Sharing information and privacy

The referring doctor or health professional will provide the specialist with as much information about your condition as they think is needed. Once the specialist has seen you, they will in turn send details of your recommended treatment back to the doctor or health professional who referred you. All your medical information is regarded as private and confidential.

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

More information

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

Last reviewed: March 2019

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