Want to Stop Referral Leakage? Put Self-Scheduling Tools in Referring Providers’ Hands

In Collaboration with Beckers

Referral leakage is a common problem among specialty providers, with the American College of Physicians (ACP) reporting that up to half of referrals to specialists are never completed.

Traditionally, processes for referrals are complex and create barriers to scheduling, both for patients and providers. These days, when a few presses on your smartphone screen can get food delivered to your door or book you a flight across the world, most referrals are still made by fax. This antiquated system is where many breakdowns in communication can occur. An ACP report shows that half the time, specialty clinicians don’t receive the information they need to make the referral appointment—including why the patient was referred.

Digitizing this historically clunky process and empowering referring providers to take charge of scheduling appointments holds strong potential to strengthen referral-to-appointment rates. Such an approach would help ease access to care for patients and tighten information exchange between providers, ensuring referring providers have the information needed to provide the right care. Ultimately, a digitized direct scheduling process for referrals supports better health outcomes, reduces risk and strengthens a specialty practice’s bottom line.

Making the Move to Digital Collaboration

Partnering with referring providers to digitally make appointments on behalf of patients eliminates the breakdowns in information transfer that occur when referral requests are faxed to specialty providers. It also eliminates a lot of back-and-forth for patients while appealing to their desire for online appointment scheduling, a service 61% of consumers say is extremely or very important.

One Atlanta metro area urology practice found this out for themselves, recording a significant bump in new patients after implementing a self-service digital tool for patients in 2021. Adoption soared after the practice conducted proactive outreach to encourage patients to self-schedule appointments and leveraged QR codes during patient webinars to unlock specific timeslots for common conditions. Leaders began to consider: “What impact could this tool have on reducing referral leakage?” They began to share direct scheduling links to their referring providers, enabling staff to schedule referral appointments in real-time during patient check out.

At that time, patient referrals arrived by fax and were often stacked on the corner of someone’s desk. Staff would not only have to sift through the referrals to determine who to contact and the type of care they needed, but also would flip through three-inch binders and Excel spreadsheets to locate physician scheduling preferences prior to making an appointment.

“We were losing the opportunity to capture the information when [patients] are most interested,” the chief operating officer for the practice said.

In Spring 2023, the urology practice started to send direct scheduling links to referring providers, marketing it as a way to ensure patients receive the specialty care recommended by their physician. They recommended referral appointments be made at the time of patient checkout, when the need for such an appointment is fresh on their mind. Staff also emailed the self-scheduling links to patients whose referrals were sent via fax.

Almost immediately, the practice saw an impact on scheduling accuracy and volume. Today, 80% of all self-scheduled appointments—both on the patient side and referring provider side—are for new patients. This significantly reduced administrative burden for staff, with average call times per scheduler dropping to just three to four minutes. Intelligent automation helps maintain physician preferences in scheduling, while capacity among urologists increased. The move to direct-to-digital referral appointments also supports more connected care by deepening connections between referring providers and the practice.

“It’s a nice experience for the patient,” the chief operating officer said. “They’re leaving with an appointment. They’re not having to wait for someone to call them, and they’re not having to call us.”

A More Modern Process for Referral Intake

Automated scheduling processes already are an avenue for convenience for consumers. Now, they’re easing the administrative workload that slows down scheduling for referrals and heightens the risk that patients won’t follow through with care. By investing in intelligent automation for referral scheduling directly from the referring provider’s office, specialty practices can smooth referral intake for better health outcomes and a stronger bottom line.