How a Digitally Connected Network Improves Specialty Referrals

Guest post by Chris Lukasiak, senior vice president, MyHealthDirect.

Chris Lukasiak
Chris Lukasiak

In the U.S., more than a third of patients are referred to a specialist each year, and specialist visits constitute more than half of outpatient visits. Referrals are the link that make this connection between primary and specialty care. From 1999 through 2009 alone, the absolute number of visits resulting in a physician referral increased 159 percent nationally, from 41 million to 105 million. This volume and the frequency of specialty referrals has steadily increased over the years and will only continue. Yet despite this rise in frequency, the referral process itself has been a great frustration for years.

Specialty referrals are a complicated business. There are many moving parts and players that all have a crucial role to play within the process. By breaking it down and looking at exactly what a referral is, who is involved, and the challenges they face, we can then look to fix what is broken. What needs to be improved? And could there be a digital solution?

Let’s start from the very beginning by looking at the stakeholders and their unique interests and concerns.

Patient – The patient experiences a health concern and needs care to get it resolved. The primary physician doesn’t provide the full solution and refers them to a specialist with more expertise about the patient’s condition. This is where the referral occurs. Currently, the extent of the referral is the physician handing a phone number to the patient to call and schedule the appointment. It’s up to the patient to contact the specialist and follow through with the next step, which explains why 20 percent of patients never even schedule the referral appointment.

Provider –There is more than one provider involved in the referral process. First is the referring (or sending) provider and then the target (or receiving) provider. The referring physician is the provider recommending (referring) them to a specialist. The target provider is the specialist that has been recommended. For a health system or physician group, there are obvious financial and quality of care benefits associated when a patient is sent to a trusted provider within network. When patients don’t go to their referral appointment, the health system or physician group loses in several ways. First of all, they have lost control over providing comprehensive care to the patient. If a patient gets readmitted to a hospital because of their negligence to follow through on a referral appointment, the health system gets penalized for the readmission. The penalty could result in CMS withholding up to 3 percent of the funding provided to the health system. The system also suffers in terms of the perception of their quality of care. If a patient is not secured with a provider within network, they may go to a competing system.

Plan – Health plans have several important considerations when a referral happens with a vested interest on three fronts to ensure the patient goes to the target provider:

1) The health plan benefits if the patient goes to a target provider within their network. Not only will patients be directed to providers that best meet their needs, but the plan also benefits when patients are referred to the providers in their Smart Network. These providers are trusted for superior care for the patient and reduced costs for the plan.
2) When a plan member doesn’t get the care they need to maintain good health, their likelihood of having major adverse events rises dramatically. This means they will end up in the ER or needing other expensive care, which represents big costs for the health plan.
3) The current approach to referrals often results in long lead times, which makes for a poor patient experience and can increase costs.

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4 Care Coordination Strategies to Drive Change

Guest post by Andy Ridinger, director of client experience, MyHealthDirect.

Andrew Ridinger
Andrew Ridinger

Despite much of the uncertainty facing the future of the health care industry, the shift to value-based care is not going to go away. Regardless of what new laws may decide, organizations need care coordination tools now more than ever to be successful. Doctors and hospital officials continue to cite care coordination as a key advantage in accountable care models, which seek to more tightly integrate providers and maintain joint financial incentives that deliver better-quality and lower-cost services.

In the United States, more than a third of patients are referred to a specialist each year, and specialist visits constitute more than half of outpatient visits. Referrals are the crucial link between primary and specialty care. Yet despite this frequency, the referral process itself has been a great frustration for many years. The transformation to value-based healthcare is well underway with a shift away from the quantity of patients to the achievement of better health outcomes.

The current state of the specialty-referral process in the U.S. provides substantial opportunities for improvement, as there are breakdowns and inefficiencies throughout. These are inevitable when the process hinges on a patient following through on a slip of paper. It is no wonder that of the one third of patients that receive referrals, 20 percent never follow through to schedule a visit. Of the referrals that are completed, a host of other challenges often result. Sometimes it is just a disconnect of information between the two providers but can be an incorrect provider altogether. The final outcome is poor for everyone involved; patient, referrer, and target provider alike.

To improve the referral process and care coordination, here are four strategies to facilitate greater convenience in care coordination initiatives:

Make it digital 
Just by enabling online booking, referral lead times (time between a PCP and specialist office visit) decrease by up to 36 percent, and show rates improve by 20 percent. Additionally, on the spot booking to a specialist reduces patient leakage for health systems. It can guarantee that care is rendered by the best-suited physicians within your preferred network.

Make it best-fit 
The most effective appointment maximizes show rates and minimizes lead times. A provider must select the preferred physician with the earliest availability at a time the patient is likely to show up. Optimized scheduling can yield up to a five times increase in referral completion rates.

Make it measurable 
The best way to improve referral completion rates and reduce lead times is to capture the relevant data points in a timely manner so that you can track changes over time. Presenting the data in an easily consumable and actionable format is equally critical.

Connect the docs 
To know if patients complete visits, it is critical that all parties share the right information and facilitate two-way communication in real time. A primary care physician making a referral is far better equipped to manage a patient’s health if she receives show status and notes back from the specialist visit as soon as that information is entered into the specialist’s electronic health record.

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