Electronic referrals

Referring clients to another service provider can be a time-consuming business. Protecting confidential information means client details and case history can’t be sent using standard email. Posting or faxing a referral isn’t efficient as information must be retyped; there can be delays and you can’t be sure if it’s been received and acted upon.
Electronic referral systems can streamline this process by giving you a way to send client information electronically and securely.
Electronic referral systems are used by all kinds of community organisations, from disability services on the NSW north coast to rural community services on the Murray River; services for the Croatian community in western Melbourne and aged care in southern South Australia.

The benefits of an electronic referral system include:

  • instant delivery of referrals and feedback. When you refer via fax or phone message, you may wait a long time to find out if your referral has gone through. With electronic referral you are notified when the other organisation receives the referral
  • a stored history of your interaction with a client/referral. Other organisations can see this too and make informed decisions. You can also create an individual support plan for a client
  • security. Email is convenient, but is not a secure way to send a referral. Electronic referral systems are both convenient and secure
  • clarity. Hand-written referrals and faxes can be difficult to read; electronic referrals are always clear
  • getting an alert if or when you have to follow-up with the referred organisation (or if someone is referred to you and you need to take action).

What kinds of electronic referral systems are there?

There are two main types of electronic referral systems. The first is web-based and used via your browser. Data is stored and sent online, in a secure environment. Both your organisation and the organisation to whom you’re referring the client must be users of the system. People/organisations tend to join in blocks, so there is a good chance the organisation you’re referring will be signed up too. If you are part of a network of organisations which commonly refers clients to one another, encourage other members to sign up to the same service you intend to use.
The second option is a secure messaging system. These systems replicate the functionality of email but are entirely secure. Again, the sender and the receiver both need to have the software for the system to work. Secure messaging is being adopted by many general practitioners and other health professionals, but hasn’t had much success outside that sector.

Some examples of online electronic referral systems

Some examples of secure messaging systems

You can see a full list of Australian health-related secure messaging systems here.

Selecting an electronic referral system for your organisation

The most important consideration when choosing an electronic referral system is whether other organisations in your network are already using a system. In most cases, electronic referrals will only work when you’re both on the same system. Speak to the organisations you work most closely with and ask for a recommendation. If none of them are using electronic referrals yet, discuss the possibility of you all going on to the same system.

You should also consider the level of security and privacy you require. Make sure any system you consider will provide the level of security you’re legally obliged to abide by (a guide to *update to new links* New Zealand's privacy legislation is here; Australia's is here). If state or national policy or programs change, will your system be updated to match the new requirements?

Check whether the system will integrate with software and work practices you’re already using. How difficult and expensive will it be if you need to change other systems or the way you work? What will the implications be for training staff?

Benefits in the field

Victorian Department of Human Services ran a state-wide forum on electronic referral with presentations from a range of organisations.

Participants reported significant increases in productivity and enhanced staff morale. Anecdotal reports included Community Health workers saying they had twice the time available for specialist assessments and therapeutic intervention. Aged care staff were saving more than an hour a week by sending electronic referrals, and sometimes saving up to 10 to 15 minutes for assessment and re-assessment at home visits. Podiatry staff were gaining time for an additional client appointment each day. Consumers appreciated not having to repeat their histories and having better access to the information they need.

Read more about driving better care through service coordination in this case study about Inner South Community Health Service.