Health and nutrition coaches are an important element in the health care cycle, as they help to improve patient outcomes and support people in making sustainable health behavior changes. They may play the role of supporter, educator, and navigator to others.
Like any profession, it is important to be aware of what you can and can’t do within your scope of work. While this may feel limiting, it is also an opportunity to build your network and even boost your business. Research shows that multidisciplinary teams of health professionals help improve people’s health outcomes significantly.
You can help build a better health support network for your client by referring them to a physician, nurse practitioner, registered dietitian, or midwife. Which medical specialist you refer them to will depend on your client’s health condition, personal preferences and goals, and the needs you detect they might have in your sessions.
This article provides information on when and how to refer your clients to a physician or other health professional for a medical evaluation.
What Does a Referral to a Health Professional Entail?
A referral to a medical health professional entails making a formal request to the health professional to see your client. In the paperwork, it is helpful to provide a reason for the referral.
The specific process for making referrals differs depending on your location, the type of health professional you refer your client to, and the health system to which they belong. Some health systems and clinics do not require referral forms, while others may have different requirements.
Reasons to Make a Referral to a Physician or Licensed Medical Specialist
It is important to identify situations where your client and the coaching process would benefit from the expertise of a physician. The following bullets describe situations where you should refer your client to another professional:
- The client’s needs are out of your legal or ethical scope of practice.
- The client doesn’t currently have a primary health provider.
- The client wants lab tests performed.
- The client expresses to you that they don’t currently like their primary health provider.
- You or your client suspect that they may have an undiagnosed condition.
- The client has a health condition that requires the health coach to collaborate closely with the health provider (pregnancy, chronic health condition, and some disabilities and mental health conditions).
- Your client is requesting a prescription.
- Your client has complex health needs, and they would benefit from working with a multidisciplinary healthcare team.
While these are common reasons to make a physician referral, simply feeling uncomfortable working with a client until they can provide you with more information about their diagnosis and overall health status.
The Benefits of Making a Referral to Another Health Professional
Making a referral for the first time can seem daunting, but once you become accustomed to the process, you’ll notice it benefits your client in addition to you and your business.
Some of the benefits of making referrals to other health professionals include:
- A more complete picture of your client's health status
- Greater confidence moving forward with a coaching plan
- The client feels supported and advocated for.
- Building a network of health professionals to whom you can refer clients and from whom you may receive referrals as well. This may mean more clients and greater income.
Steps for Referring Your Client to a Health Professional for Medical Evaluation
The referral system for different health systems can vary, as there is no set way to make referrals. Here are 5 basic steps to making a referral to another health professional.
Talk to Your Client
Before starting the referral process, it is essential to talk to your client and make sure they are on board.
Here is a list of questions you can ask your client to receive more information on making an appropriate referral.
- Would you like me to refer you to a health specialist in that area?
- Do you have insurance?
- Does your insurance have a network of health professionals I can look over?
- Does your insurance include reimbursements for out-of-network professionals?
- Do you have a gender preference for your healthcare provider?
- Is there a healthcare professional or healthcare system you would prefer not to visit?
- May I disclose the information you have shared with me with the healthcare provider?
- Would you like me to be with you when you call to set up the appointment?
Identify a Health Professional
After getting the green light from a client to refer them to a health professional, it is time to identify a health professional that meets their criteria and preferences. You might already have a network of health professionals you trust, in which case you can start there. It is possible, however, that you may have to look for a professional outside of your network.
Contact the Health Professional or Health System
Next, it is important to find out how to make a referral to that health professional. As mentioned previously, the actual referral process may differ significantly between health professionals. Some don’t take referral forms and instead request that patients make their own appointments. Others might only ask you to call or email them, while still other professionals or systems might require you to fill out one or more forms.
You will usually find this information on the clinic’s, hospital’s, or office’s website. If not, it is recommended to call the office and speak to the office assistant about the best way to make a referral. Be prepared to talk about who you are and why you would like to refer your client.
Tip: When you contact the health professional or send them your client’s paperwork, you can provide information about your coaching practice and offer to set up a meeting to discuss ways to work collaboratively to improve client-patient health outcomes.
Fill Out Necessary Paperwork
Next, you need to fill out the actual referral forms. In general, they are short and straightforward and ask information about who you are, who your patient is, their diagnosis and condition, and details as to why the patient needs to see another health professional.
See this patient referral template to get an idea of what a referral form might look like. Send the referral form ahead if the office requires it.
Support the Client in Making the Appointment
Once you have contacted the health professional and filled out the necessary paperwork, let your client know they are free to make an appointment. Offer to be there to support your client while they make the call if needed.
As a health coach, referring clients to other health professionals can significantly improve your clients’ understanding of their health condition, and it can help to support their overall health outcomes. At the same time, making referrals builds your personal network so that you can take advantage of the benefits of multidisciplinary collaboration and have other professionals refer patients to you.
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