General practice is often a patient’s first point of contact with the healthcare system. Timely referrals to outpatient care, when clinically appropriate, can improve patient experience and outcomes. GP surgeries in England use the NHS e-Referral Service (e-RS) to refer patients to consultant-led outpatient services, and patients can also use e-RS to book their first hospital or clinic appointment online, by telephone or directly in the GP surgery at the time of referral. Here we look at how the number of GP referrals has changed over time.
In general, the number of GP referrals falls sharply over the Christmas period and recovers quickly to normal levels in January. In 2019-20, the total number of GP referrals fell to 168,532 in the week starting 23 December 2019 and reached a peak of 380,503 in the week starting 20 January 2020.
Between 6 January and 15 March 2020, the total number of GP referrals fluctuated at around 360,000 referrals per week. From the week starting 16 March, the number of referrals began to fall dramatically following the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, with NHS trusts asked to free up capacity on 17 March. This may be due to the scaling back of hospital activity or a reduction in the number of patients presenting at GP surgeries.
The number of GP referrals fell to a low of 53,268 in the week starting 13 April. Routine referrals fell by 91%, urgent referrals fell by 78% and two-week wait referrals for suspected cancer fell by 67%. Since then, the number of referrals has begun to increase but remains considerably lower than before the pandemic.
About this data
NHS Digital publishes weekly data on referrals, bookings and appointment slot issues through the NHS e-Referral Service (e-RS). The e-RS is used by all GPs in England to make referrals to consultant-led outpatient services and it allows patients to choose their first appointment with a specialist. Bookings can be made online, using the telephone, or directly in the GP surgery at the time of referral.
A referral is defined as a request to another clinician to assist with management of a patient’s health issue. Referral data includes referrals from both CCG and non-CCG organisations for all priorities, specialities, and clinic types. The data do not include patients who have had a referral, booking or attempted booking outside of the e-RS system.