When you need specialist NHS support, like hospital tests or treatment, you often need a referral from your GP first. 

What is a referral?

Your GP is often the first person you speak to when you have a health issue or symptoms you’re worried about. GPs and other health professionals at the practice are highly skilled and can offer medical advice, provide diagnoses and prescribe medicines for lots of common conditions.

And sometimes, your GP might decide you need to see another healthcare professional for specialist tests, treatment or care. When they request specialist tests or treatment on your behalf, this is known as a referral.

Examples of referrals could include:

  • Scans or tests for a diagnosis of a condition or health issue
  • Wellbeing services, like smoking cessation or diabetes management
  • Physiotherapy
  • Minor surgery

In most cases you need to see your GP or speak to a doctor at a hospital to get a referral to another NHS service. Although sometimes, other healthcare professionals, such as a nurse, can make referrals as well.

You can also sometimes self-refer to further NHS support, like mental health talking therapies.

What can you expect?

Unless you can self-refer, specialists will only see people with a letter of referral from their GP or a hospital doctor.

Your GP or the hospital doctor supporting you should:

  • Discuss why they want to refer you and what tests or treatment they think should be carried out
  • Provide choices of where and who you can be referred to, with information about the hospitals and doctors working there
  • Give you information on the referral letter about how to make an appointment as each service uses different ways of arranging appointments.

What are people’s rights?

The NHS Constitution for England formally states that:

  • People have the right to access NHS services
  • People will not be refused access on unreasonable grounds
  • People have the right to receive care appropriate to their needs and preferences
  • People should not be unlawfully discriminated against when trying to access services on grounds of gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion, belief, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, or marital/civil partnership status

The Constitution also sets out that once you’ve been referred, you have the right to start some treatments within a specific timeframe. This time starts from the day your appointment is booked, or when the hospital or service received your referral letter:

  • 18 weeks maximum for a first appointment for elective/routine/planned/non-urgent consultant-led treatment
  • Two weeks maximum to see a specialist for suspected cancer

The NHS also states that in terms of choice and preference, you are entitled to ask for a referral for specialist treatment. However, the final decision will always be down to your GP or the hospital doctor responsible for your care. If you have been denied a referral you are also allowed to seek a second opinion from another doctor.

NHS services

How to register with a GP

A General Practitioner (or GP) provides what is called primary care. 

Find out more

Getting urgent or emergency care

If you need quick help for a medical problem, there are different routes depending on whether the issue is an emergency or urgent.

Find out more

How do I get a dentist appointment?

Many people are struggling to get dentist appointments.

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How a pharmacy can help

Pharmacists are qualified healthcare professionals who can offer clinical advice and over-the-counter medicines for various minor illnesses. 

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Using the NHS app

You can access a range of NHS services from your smartphone, tablet and other devices using the NHS app.

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Getting an NHS interpreter

It is your right to have a professional interpreter help you at every stage of your healthcare journey.

Find out more