Behavioral Consult

Making an effective referral is surprisingly complex


One of the critical tasks in primary care, but for which you may have had no training, is making a referral. Referrals actually are a complex procedure that can result in crucial health, developmental, and mental health benefits, yet patients attend referred services at wildly variable rates of 11%-81%, and for mental health and early intervention (EI) less than half the time.1 When surveyed, primary care providers (PCP) say that they want to share in the care of 75% of patients they refer, especially for mental health concerns. Yet after decades of practice, I can count on one hand the number of children I have referred to mental health or EI services for whom I received feedback from the specialist (here meaning agencies or providers outside the office). Lately, if the specialist is using the same EHR, I sometimes discover their note when reviewing the document list, but I was not cc’d. In fact, the most common outcome is that the patient never sees the specialist and we don’t find out until the next visit, often months later when precious time for intervention has passed. Less than 50% of children with a mental health issue that qualifies as a disorder are detected by PCPs, and less than half of those children complete a referral. But there are lots of reasons for that, you say, such as a lack of specialists. But less than half of referrals for toddlers with developmental delays are completed to EI services even when such services are available and free of cost.

Female doctor using a computer Wavebreak Media/

What makes referrals so complicated? Lack of referral completion can come from structural factors and interpersonal factors. We and our patients both are frustrated by lack of specialty resources, specialists who do not accept our patient’s insurance (or any insurance), distance, transportation, hours of operation issues, overall life burdens or priorities of families, and of course, cost. We can help with a few of these, either with our own list or ideally with the help of a care coordinator or social worker keeping a list identifying local specialists, payment methods accepted, and perhaps reduced-cost care options or financial assistance. However, the interpersonal issues that can make or break a referral definitely are within our reach.

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