In healthcare, ‘referral’ is used when a provider from one clinical domain directs a patient to a provider in another clinical domain. Most prominent use case is when a primary care physician (PCPs) refers a patient to a specialist or for services  performed outside the PCP’s office (diagnostic tests, outpatient surgery, etc.). If a referral is deemed medically warranted, the PCP decides at minimum:

  • In case of specialist: physician to whom the referral is made
  • In case of services: what service, for how long (how many visits to authorize)

Most referral arrangements are based on mutually agreed referral guidelines between the referring and referred-to parties. These guidelines either developed by the medical groups or insurers themselves (sometimes in cooperation with their specialists) or bought from actuarial companies. In the majority of cases referrals result in a continuous back-and-forth communication between providers. Example: If a patient needs to be referred to a surgeon, what exactly should the PCP authorize as a part of the initial referral? The surgical procedure itself… Or simply authorize the patient’s initial consult and then issue any necessary additional referrals later (based on communication with the surgeon).

You get the picture. Referrals are not a simple in the real-world. And any software solution for referral management would need capability to effectively enable that back-and-forth workflow. Enter a new sub-species of Healthcare IT startups. EasyReferrals is an online system for facilitating and managing referrals between physicians. It’s not alone. See Trust.MD, DermLink.MD (dermatology-specific referrals). A more complete list is on Multiplyd Wiki.

The need seems to be there. My concern is around how these offerings fit in with the current healthcare IT ecosystem of EHRs and HIEs. If the daily workflow of participating provider is captured mostly by EHRs, isn’t referral management a candidate functionality within the EHR? Of course, EHRs are not good at everything (some would say, anything) so one can argue there is a need for a niche players. But referrals are not just a case of isolated messaging. To do them effectively, one would need to have some serious cross-over into patient information. E.g. sending clinical summaries or results or schedules back and forth between referrer and referee. Or communicating updates, results to the patient’s PHR. All of that requires information that is forte of an EHR. Standards or not, EHRs don’t have incentive to share that with other players.

It’s even more interesting for HIEs, since their whole value proposition is around connecting disparate providers in a geopolitical affinity group to enable such value-added workflows across participants. The whole HIE infrastructure, from Master Patient Index (MPI) to a Community-wide longitudinal health record, is created with the aim to facilitate business cases that are worth paying for. And referral management lends itself beautifully to the core of HIE and ACO viability. HIE vendors know it, and are busy in creating tools and governance that enable exactly that. Case in point – regional provider directories. Referral management is a non-starter without knowing what the end-points are. And HIEs/ACOs will own provider directories going forward. Integrating regional healthcare information is a political game (sadly) and I wouldn’t bet on untethered (with respect to EHR/HIE/ACO/IPA..) technology vendors for making a dent in that on their own.

Since I’m already at risk of being labeled doomsayer by few readers, I’ll bang the last nail in this coffin. DirectProject is enabling forcing all incumbent Healthcare IT systems to have secure,  point-to-point communication functionality that transcends data silos. Referrals are already the first use case being enabled by that uptake of DirectProject standard. So even the regulatory forces are creating headwinds for independent referral management solutions.

2017 Update: Seems like this company changed name to MedicalReferrals.com after 2012 and eventually got acquired by The Advisory Board, which seems to have lost interest in it.