How to deal with a request for a private referral

Make sure patients are referred down the right pathway for efficient access to the right specialist and to avoid complaints.

While the NHS is still delivering a significant amount of elective treatment, the strain of treating huge numbers of patients during the pandemic has inevitably impacted waiting times.

Due to the expanding waiting list, an increasing number of patients are opting to pay for private care. But the interface between NHS and private care can be difficult to navigate for both patients and doctors.

It's important to send patients down the right pathway to ensure efficient access to the right specialist and to avoid complaints. Here we answer some frequently asked questions raised by MDU members about referring patients to independent practitioners .

Can I decline to make a referral to an independent practitioner if I don't think it's appropriate?

While many independent specialists will see patients without a GP referral, others may request a letter from you setting out relevant health information about the patient. Sometimes this is necessary to enable the patient to access care via private medical insurance.

Patients will sometimes wrongly assume that if they are paying for private healthcare, the GP is duty bound to refer them. However, you don't have to refer patients to a specialist, for either NHS or private care, if you think the assessment or treatment requested is not clinically necessary.

In this situation it can be helpful to direct the patient to the relevant NHS patient information page. Advise them that the reason a referral is not being made is because it is not clinically indicated and offer them the option of a second opinion from another GP.

Can I charge for private referral letters?

In some circumstances you can charge patients for a private referral. The rules vary, though, and it's best to check this contractual query with your LMC, CCG or the BMA.

Should I prescribe medications recommended by an independent practitioner?

You are not obliged to prescribe medication at the request of an independent practitioner or provider if you do not feel it is clinically appropriate.

The GMC's Good practice in prescribing and managing medicines and devices says that, "If you prescribe based on the recommendation of another doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional, you must be satisfied that the prescription is needed, appropriate for the patient and within the limits of your competence."

When considering whether to prescribe the medication being recommended, ask yourself the following questions.

  • Would I be happy to prescribe and monitor the medication without specialist oversight?
  • Am I happy that the specialist recommending it is appropriately qualified?
  • Would I prescribe the medication had the same treatment been recommended by a colleague working for the NHS?

If the answer to these questions is yes, you might well be happy to write the prescription. Alternatively, if you don't feel comfortable prescribing the recommended drug because doing so is outside of your knowledge and expertise, explain this to the patient. Recommend that the specialist retains responsibility for prescribing as the medication is not suitable to be managed in primary care.

Can I enter into a shared care agreement with an independent practitioner?

It's best to check your CCG policy, as some won't allow you to enter into shared care agreements with private providers. One reason for this is to keep as clear a separation as possible between private and NHS care. Another is because the specialist may not be able to continue with the shared care arrangement if the patient doesn't continue to see them in a private capacity.

NHS England guidance contains useful information on shared care agreements within the NHS and the principles involved. This makes clear that shared care agreements are to enable patients to receive integrated care and seamless prescribing and monitoring of medicines, with clinical responsibility for this transferred from a hospital or specialist service to general practice.

It also states that when proposing shared care agreements, "a specialist should advise which medicines to prescribe, what monitoring will need to take place in primary care, how often medicines should be reviewed, and what actions should be taken in the event of difficulties."

If you can't enter into a shared care agreement, explain this to the patient and specialist and see if a resolution can be found. For example, can the specialist issue the prescriptions, or can care be transferred to an appropriate NHS specialist? The Medicines Optimisation Team may be able to advise further.

What about patients who feel they should have opted for NHS treatment?

Patients will occasionally complain that the waiting time for NHS treatment was overstated, leading to them paying for a private referral. Patients in this situation may ask for the fee to be reimbursed as a result of being given incorrect information.

As such, it's important to make sure that estimates of waiting times for treatment are up to date and as accurate as possible, that all options for NHS services have been considered, and that the notes clearly document what has been discussed.

MDU medico-legal advisers are on hand to answer members' queries about private referrals. GPs beginning their training in England and Wales can find out more about savings on becoming an MDU member: First year GP - The MDU

This article was first published on GP Online.

This page was correct at publication on 13/07/2022. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Dr Ellie Mein MDU medico-legal adviser

by Dr Ellie Mein Medico-legal adviser


Ellie joined the MDU as a medico-legal adviser in 2013. Prior to this she worked as an ophthalmologist before completing her Graduate Diploma in Law in Birmingham.