4 tips for a smooth referral

Sometimes you must send veterinary clients to a specialty or referral practice to make sure their pets get the care they need. Team members can smooth this potentially stressful process with a few simple steps.
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May 01, 2012

A client arrives at a referral practice without their pet, thinking their pet doesn't need to be present for a consultation. Or they're surprised when the referral practice charges a fee for a consultation. These scenarios may seem silly, but they happen—often because referred clients are concerned, confused, and unprepared.

Referring a case usually indicates the need for care at a more advanced facility, whether it's a surgery referral clinic, imaging center, or a veterinary teaching hospital. This can be a stressful event for clients and their pets. Use the following tools to help ensure a smooth transition to another veterinary facility.

1. Communicate. Communication isn't limited to the referring veterinarian and the client. It's important for team members and referring doctors to communicate with the recommended veterinary facility. Most referral clinics take appointments like general practice clinics, so calling ahead to arrange an appointment can be crucial. This ensures that team members and veterinarians know the cases coming in, including when and how critical the patient may be—especially if it's a same-day referral. It also gives the owner an idea of time and cost, so it isn't an unpleasant surprise. A clear line of communication between both clinics and the pet owner helps ensure a smooth transfer of care.

2. Have the money talk. Communicating expected costs of a referral is also critical. Although it can be difficult to discuss costs and payment with the owner, not discussing it can be a disservice to the client. Be up front about expected costs—let the owner make an informed decision about how to proceed with care. Find out methods of payment the referral practice offers before you send your client. Nothing is worse than referring clients and their pets and learning they were shell shocked with the cost of treatment. Equally bad is when the client reports the referral practice didn't offer a payment plan or accept a certain credit card they wanted to use, and clients weren't prepared with alternate forms of payment. Most referral clinics can give estimated costs of treatment or surgery. If cost is a concern or clients are unsure about referral to a specialist, consider referring for a consultation only. Get a starting point for the patient that may help lower the pet owner's stress.

3. Use a pre-appointment checklist. After the veterinarian makes the decision to refer a case, collect all relevant medical information for clients to take with them. In some clinics, you can send this information electronically via fax or email, so the owner has less to think about. Generally recommended information includes:

  • The patient's complete medical history.
  • All recent lab work, with the most recent on top. (Performing a complete panel just before referral is highly recommended.)
  • Any radiology information, including radiographs, ultrasound reports, CT imaging, and so on. (Performing chest radiographs the same day of referral when indicated or for critical care cases is also highly recommended.)
  • A list of the patient's current medications and medication allergies, if known.
  • Contact information for the referral clinic, including a map and directions, ready for the client. Be sure they know where they're going and how to get there, especially if the clinic is in a different town or state.

4. Offer follow-up and home care. Depending on the location of the referral clinic and the type of care needed, follow-up care may be more realistic at the referring veterinary clinic. Be sure the client knows that they may have options about where to do follow-up care—as well as expected costs for that care—from the start. Unfortunately, some clients expect one visit will fix their pet, and they're shocked with follow-up care costs.

Although we know that not every case is the same, these basic guidelines may help alleviate some problems associated with referral. A smooth transition offers the best care possible for the patient and improves the chances of a satisfied client.

Rachael Simmons is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and head receptionist at Veterinary Surgical Specialists in Spokane, Wash.