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Referral management scheme declined almost a tenth of GP requests

Exclusive Nearly a tenth of specialist referrals were sent back to primary care by a £206,000-a-year private management scheme, a CCG has revealed.

The rapid specialist opinion (RSO) scheme was introduced by North Durham NHS CCG in 2016 to review referrals from its 31 GP practices.

The CCG hired private provider About Health to review referral letters at a cost of £10 a time. It said that unnecessary referrals usually cost the CCG around £150 a time.

In the first 68 weeks of the scheme, GPs and NHS consultants reviewed 17,573 referrals and returned 1,683 to primary care ‘with advice’.

The CCG said returned referrals covered ‘conditions that can be treated more appropriately within primary care or a GPSI community service in accordance with our clinical guidelines’.

Cases could include cataract surgery referrals before a patient is seen by a referral refinement service.

‘The referral will be returned to the GP practice for them to advise the patient they will first need to been seen by an accredited optometrist for a full assessment,’ said the CCG.

Another 2,288 – or 13% – were referred onto a GP with special interest (GPSI) or community services for treatment.

Reviewers accepted 13,602 referrals from GPs over the same period.

The CCG estimates that the scheme saved £982,000 in its first year.

‘RSO is to ensure patients are receiving the most appropriate treatment for their condition in the most appropriate place,’ it said.

GPs had a right to appeal the decisions and each referral was expected to take up to three days.

Meanwhile a 12-month pilot referral review scheme used by NHS Darlington CCG and NHS Hartlepool Stockton-on-Tees CCG is still being evaluated.

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The CCG told Pulse there was a 7% drop in the number of outpatient appointments for cases reviewed by the Clinical Assessment and Peer Review (CASPeR) scheme in 2017/18, compared with the previous year.

Since the scheme began last summer it referred 1,555 cases and rejected 190 of them.

A team of GPs and GPSI reviewed each case, but urgent referrals were not affected.

It aimed to cut ‘variations’ in patient care and pressure on hospitals.

The CCGs pointed out that ‘this is however attributable to a range of projects’ and supports the principle of managing acute demand and seeing patients in the right place, first time.

However a three-year study of 85 practices in Norfolk cast doubt on the effectiveness of appraisal schemes in cutting referrals

Dr Andrew Green, the BMA GP Committee’s clinical and prescribing policy lead said: ‘It is quite wrong to judge these schemes in terms of costs incurred set against savings made, what is needed is an assessment of the clinical outcomes of the patients involved.

‘It is appropriate to look at imaginative and cost-effective alternatives to the traditional out-patient referral, but these must not make savings by denying or postponing the care that patients need, by transferring clinical risk to GPs, or by transferring work onto already struggling practices.’

County Durham GP trainer Dr Kamal Sidhu said there was ‘more of a standardised approach to referrals including use of clinical processes/protocols and also an increased use of skill mix within practices’ which could make GPs ‘more focused on what we might achieve from a referral’.

But he added: ‘At the same time, we are in situations where we end up absorbing more uncertainty and risk.’

The news comes as NHS England has been encouraging CCGs to subject GP referrals to peer review.

However, some schemes go further than others, with a Pulse investigation revealing that GP practices in five areas of the country are being offered controversial ‘profit share’ agreements that see them paid up to half the savings if they refrain from referring.

The RCGP ‘supports the use of initiatives which are primarily designed to improve referral quality’ but has called for the abolition of referral management aimed purely at reducing referrals. It said incentive schemes to reduce referrals have ‘no place’ in the NHS and were ‘frankly insulting’.