rcm glossary


Referral is the process of directing a patient from one healthcare provider to another for specialized care or additional diagnostic or treatment services.

Accelerate your revenue cycle

Boost patient experience and your bottom line by automating patient cost estimates, payer underpayment detection, and contract optimization in one place.

Get a Demo

What is Referral in Healthcare Revenue Cycle Management (RCM)?

In healthcare revenue cycle management (RCM), a referral refers to the process of transferring a patient from one healthcare provider to another for specialized care or services. It involves the formal request made by a primary care physician (PCP) or another healthcare professional to a specialist or a facility to evaluate, diagnose, or treat a patient's specific medical condition. Referrals play a crucial role in ensuring that patients receive appropriate and timely care from the most qualified healthcare providers.

Importance of Referrals in Healthcare RCM

Referrals are an essential component of the healthcare revenue cycle management process as they facilitate the coordination and continuity of care for patients. They serve several important purposes, including:

1. Access to Specialized Care:

Referrals enable patients to access specialized care that may not be available within the primary care setting. Specialists possess advanced knowledge, skills, and resources to diagnose and treat complex medical conditions, ensuring that patients receive the most appropriate care for their specific needs.

2. Continuity of Care:

Referrals help maintain continuity of care by ensuring that all healthcare providers involved in a patient's treatment have access to relevant medical information. This allows for seamless communication and collaboration between providers, reducing the risk of medical errors and improving patient outcomes.

3. Cost-Effective Care:

Referrals can help optimize healthcare costs by directing patients to the most cost-effective providers or facilities. By leveraging the expertise of specialists, unnecessary tests, procedures, or hospitalizations can be avoided, leading to better resource utilization and reduced healthcare expenses.

4. Network Development: Referrals contribute to the development and expansion of healthcare provider networks. Primary care providers often establish relationships with specialists and facilities to ensure their patients have access to a comprehensive range of services. This network development enhances the overall quality and efficiency of healthcare delivery.

Referral vs. Consultation: Understanding the Difference

While the terms "referral" and "consultation" are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings in healthcare RCM. It is important to understand the difference between these terms:


A referral is a formal request made by a primary care provider or another healthcare professional to transfer a patient to a specialist or facility for further evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. The referral typically includes relevant medical information and the reason for the referral. It is initiated when the primary care provider determines that specialized care is necessary to address the patient's specific medical condition.


A consultation, on the other hand, refers to a request made by a healthcare provider (either a primary care provider or a specialist) to seek the opinion or advice of another healthcare professional regarding a patient's diagnosis or treatment plan. Unlike a referral, a consultation does not involve the transfer of care or responsibility for the patient. It is a collaborative process aimed at gathering expert opinions to enhance patient care.In summary, referrals involve the transfer of care from one provider to another, while consultations involve seeking expert advice without transferring care.

Examples of Referrals in Healthcare RCM

To provide a clearer understanding, here are a few examples of referrals in healthcare revenue cycle management:

1. Primary Care Provider to Specialist:

A primary care provider refers a patient to a cardiologist for further evaluation of a heart condition. The referral includes the patient's medical history, relevant test results, and the reason for the referral. The cardiologist evaluates the patient, provides a diagnosis, and recommends a treatment plan. The primary care provider remains involved in the patient's overall care, coordinating with the specialist as needed.

2. Specialist to Facility:

A gastroenterologist refers a patient to a hospital for a colonoscopy procedure. The referral includes the patient's medical history, previous test results, and the specific procedure required. The hospital schedules the procedure, performs it, and communicates the results back to the referring specialist for further management.

3. Facility to Facility:

A rehabilitation center refers a patient to a skilled nursing facility for post-surgical care and physical therapy. The referral includes the patient's medical history, surgical details, and the required level of care. The skilled nursing facility admits the patient, provides the necessary care and therapy, and communicates progress updates to the referring rehabilitation center.

These examples illustrate how referrals facilitate the transfer of patients between healthcare providers and facilities, ensuring appropriate care and treatment for specific medical conditions.


In healthcare revenue cycle management (RCM), referrals are a vital aspect of coordinating and delivering comprehensive patient care. They enable primary care providers to transfer patients to specialists or facilities for specialized evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Referrals ensure access to specialized care, maintain continuity of care, optimize healthcare costs, and contribute to network development. Understanding the difference between referrals and consultations is crucial for effective healthcare RCM. By incorporating referrals into the RCM process, healthcare organizations can enhance patient outcomes, improve resource utilization, and streamline the delivery of quality care.

Get paid in full by bringing clarity to your revenue cycle

Full Page Background