Studies show that referring a patient to a specialist can often be a stressful and time-consuming enterprise for a primary care physician. Not only does that PCP have to identify the correct doctor to refer to, he or she must then, in many cases, set up a meeting to discuss the patient's case.

What's the latest high-tech solution to save this kind of effort and energy? Electronic consultations, often called e-consults or e-referrals. The process works this way: a PCP who needs to ask a specialist about a specific patient's care — such as a symptom that needs to be discussed or further info about testing — emails a specialist. Then, the PCP and specialist discuss the patient's situation through messages.

Often, the process cuts the need for a patient to even see a specialist altogether. The electronic ease by which PCP and the specialist cooperate helps foster better communication, according to research from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Implementing an e-consult system into a practice works as described in research from San Francisco General Hospital and the RAND Corporation: A doctor submits a referral request to a specialist through a predesigned web-based program or service, often embedded in the doctor's overall electronic health record system.

The doctor then enters a consult question in free text format. A designated specialist then reviews and responds to each referral request directly. The system can eliminate inappropriate referrals, move urgent cases more quickly, and assure a complete primary care work-up before a patient even schedules a specialist appointment.

Are e-consults right for your practice? Consider the following possible benefits:

  • Specialist costs for patients lacking insurance can be eliminated completely.
  • You can take more Medicaid patients into your practice; this allows these patients more comprehensive complete care. Previously, they may have not had sufficient access to specialists.
  • Travel time and costs will be less for patients who live at a distance from a specialist's office you would normally refer them to.
  • Waiting times will be cut for patients who do need to be seen by specialists, since you as their PCP and the specialists you consult can communicate easily prior to the visit. Also, less prep time is needed for patient appointments.
  • You'll enjoy expanded efficiency in your office — e-consults can allow doctors to preserve more time during their workdays.
  • High satisfaction. Research reviews have shown both doctors and patients find the e-consult process medically accurate and very convenient.

Practice size is not a factor when it comes to using e-consults, although practices with larger populations can benefit more expansively from the process.

Interested in trying the idea out? Talk to your organization's administration — and ask your patients if they like the idea. E-consults can be a great way to streamline a key medical process when implemented correctly.