Practice Economics

Referral Lists


I like to ask laypeople what they think “hospitalist” means. For years, I was confident that they had never heard the term, but now my question is more often met with an accurate response.

A hotel desk clerk in 1998 actually made one of the cleverest guesses I’ve ever heard. For the whole day, she and her colleagues had in front of them a sign that read “Hospitalist Meeting in the Ballroom,” which got them talking about what in the world a hospitalist is. Seeing from my badge that I was attending that meeting, she asked me what the term meant, but she first gamely provided her best guess: “Someone who makes lists of hospitals.”

There seems to be no end to the number of healthcare-related nouns and verbs to which someone attaches the suffix “ist.” Some days I request so many consults that I’m just a “referralist” (one who refers patients; surely this is a term we can do without). But don’t let the headline of this column confuse you: I really am addressing the lists used to determine which doctor to refer patients to.

When there are competing providers in a given specialty, they will have an incentive to provide better service to the hospitalist as a way of ensuring future referrals.

Hospitalist Referrals

The first of two common referral lists for hospitalists is a directory of primary-care physicians (PCPs) and clinics, as well as some other providers that refer patients to the hospitalist. Nearly all hospitalist groups maintain such a list, and they might apply a variety of terms such as “subscriber” (which refers to hospitalists) and “nonsubscriber” physicians.

Because most HM groups care for patients who come from all or nearly all of the PCPs in an area, it is often simpler to just create a short list of those providers who don’t refer to the hospitalists. In many hospitals, there are just four or five providers on that list. ED providers are the ones who most often access this list. When visiting other hospitals, I often see a paper copy of the list taped up at the provider workstations in the ED.

Consult Who?

The other, and much less common, type of referral list governs which doctors the hospitalists are to consult. There are two strategies that come up when thinking about this kind of list.

Do what the ED doctors do. ED physicians typically are constrained by the list of on-call physicians for each specialty, and are to always consult that doctor rather than another. For example, the ED doctor is required to consult Dr. Taylor for any patient in need of a general surgeon and doesn’t have a prior relationship with one. Tomorrow, the ED doctor is required to consult Dr. Simon. Dr. Taylor and Dr. Simon are to be contacted because they are the ones on call for the ED those days. Even if the ED doctor would rather consult Dr. Simon today (maybe she is more able, affable, and available than Dr. Taylor), that isn’t an option, because it is Dr. Taylor’s name on the ED on-call roster today.

Each PCP creates a referral list for hospitalists to follow. New hospitalist practices often agree to follow the consulting patterns of each referring PCP. This can increase PCP acceptance of the HM model, and after all, the GI doctor consulted by the hospitalist during the few days in the hospital is the same one who will be working with the PCP when the patient has outpatient issues requiring GI specialty care. This usually means that the hospitalist carries a list of each PCP, and which GI doctor, orthopedist, etc., that particular PCP likes to consult. When the hospitalist needs an ortho consult, she first verifies the PCP this patient sees, then pulls out the list to see the orthopedist(s) that PCP prefers.

In most settings, either form of a mandated referral list is a poor system for hospitalists and is best avoided. Instead, the hospitalists should be free to deviate from the ED call list as they see fit. And while they should be attentive to the consulting preferences of each PCP, it is best not to promise the PCPs that their preference will always be followed. Providing the hospitalists this latitude means they can tailor the choice of consultant to the patient’s needs and the level of service (i.e. able, affable, available) each provides. And, at least in theory, when there are competing providers in a given specialty, they will have an incentive to provide better service to the hospitalist as a way of ensuring future referrals.

Practical Considerations

Even though I think it is optimal for hospitalists to have a lot of latitude in which doctors they consult, there are some practical considerations to keep in mind. For example, if the patient’s PCP is in a group that also has surgeons, it will be best to call one of them, and not a competing surgeon, when the patient has surgical needs. And the hospitalists as a group should usually make some effort to avoid never consulting a particular provider or group, as that could lead the “blackballed” doctor or group to complain enough that the medical staff or hospital leadership might force the hospitalists to follow the ED call roster when choosing referrals.

The number of physicians seeking hospital employment, which is steadily increasing these days, will in many settings increase sensitivities around referral patterns. For example, if your hospital has had three competing general surgery groups and one chooses to become hospital-employed, then the other two groups are likely to worry a lot that the hospitalists might be directed by the hospital to preferentially refer to the newly employed surgeons. Even if your hospitalist group has never had any sort of encouragement to do this, it could be very hard to convince the non-hospital-employed surgeons of this. This could become such a sensitive issue that it might be necessary to carefully track the number of referrals to each surgical group.

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And to prevent arguments like “You just consult us on the bad or uninsured patients,” you might also need to track the nature of the patient’s problem and insurance status, and whether the referral led to a procedure. The best approach will be to try to prevent these sorts of things from coming up by maintaining good communication and relations with other physician groups and thinking deliberately about your referral patterns. TH

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988 and is co-founder and past president of SHM. He is a principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants, a national hospitalist practice management consulting firm ( He is course co-director and faculty for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program.” This column represents his views and is not intended to reflect an official position of SHM.

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