Behavioral Health - Key Activity 17


Continue to Develop Referral Relationships and Pathways


This key activity involves the following elements of person-centered population-based care: operationalize clinical guidelines; pre-visit planning and care gap reduction; care coordination; address social needs.


Behavioral health integration strategies and expanding your practice’s capacity to provide BH services can be paired with continuing to expand your network of off-site BH providers. Examples include referrals from the practice to a provider, such as behavioral health and social services providers, or to a program that will support health and well-being. A referral network also includes acute and subacute facilities, such as hospitals, emergency departments and residential treatment facilities, where a patient may receive treatment and the outcome of treatment is necessary for the ongoing care of the patient in the practice.

This activity addresses common steps that your practice can take to optimize both referral pathways and outcomes. The practice of closed loop referrals in which there is a feedback mechanism to ensure that a referral made by one provider to another is completed and followed up appropriately leads to greater patient and provider satisfaction. As your practice strengthens its evidence-based referral practices, including warm handoffs and the use of motivational interviewing to assess and address readiness for referral, you can develop your referral network. This activity builds on an inventory of existing referral services outside the clinic and identifies steps that can be taken to support the systematic management of the referral process.

When a patient requires a referral to obtain needed services outside the clinic, the process is a point of vulnerability and a significant percent of specialty referrals aren’t completed, in part due to missing information, misguided referrals, and faulty communications.[1][2] If a referral is not completed, patients may not receive needed services, which can lead to decreased quality of care, decreased patient and provider satisfaction, and ultimately poorer health outcomes.[3]

A contributor to inequity in health outcomes is unequal access to specialty services and resources to help patients with their condition.[4] The heart of this activity is to empower both the care team and patients through development and maintenance of a robust process to help patients access medical, behavioral health and community resources.

Many factors can impact whether or not a patient accesses a referral, including language, culture and lack of understanding of why the referral is being requested. Lack of understanding of why a referral is being sought is often a barrier for patients to follow up with a referral.

When appropriate, referrals for social needs and to community health programs can help address barriers, including those around transportation, language, and basic needs of food and housing stability, all of which are associated with poorer health outcomes.

Electronic support for providing access to referral resources is important in the EHR (requiring continuous updating of the database) and for care managers. For care managers and coordinators, externally maintained electronic referral databases are available.

The ability to track referrals (e.g., closed loop) remains challenging for most EHRs and often requires partially manual processes in EHRs and care coordination or population management applications. These manual processes are often facilitated through the construction of a separate registry in which teams can log appointments and track the referrals and document completion. This approach requires some process for documenting and updating the status of orders in the EHR.

Population-level reports can identify resource needs and gaps and guide efforts for improving sources of services.

Action steps and roles

1. Identify types of referral partners that your practice needs and gaps in resource availability.

Work with the care teams and the IBH implementation team to identify gaps in referral resources that could enhance implementation of evidence-based care. Consider high-volume specialties, such as social service and substance use providers.

In areas where you have gaps in referral providers, Telehealth services may be an option. For further information on Telehealth services including e-consult, synchronous, asynchronous, and eVisits, contact your Managed Care Plan and/or refer to Telehealth Reimbursement Guide (pages 14-16). Referral processes and tracking are also important to establish for Telehealth as well as in-person services.

Use social health screening results that have been disaggregated by REAL and SOGI alongside patient/family feedback to identify unmet needs for which resource relationships have not been established.

2. Assess what tools would be beneficial for the core elements of your referral process.

Examples include (see resources below):

  • Referral request form.
    • Determine what information is required for the provider and who is receiving the referral. Information may include the requested service, timing (e.g., urgent vs. standard), and the minimum necessary information, such as the patient’s contact information, applicable demographics, and appropriate clinical and social support questions.
  • Referral tracking spreadsheet or software.
    • Information in a tracking system can include the date of referral, appointment status, and whether follow-up is needed. Reach out to your Medi-Cal managed care plans (MCPs) as you are developing referral tracking processes. The MCPs are required to show that Medi-Cal patients are being connected to the services that they are eligible for and referred to; this includes preventive services, specialty services and social services. The MCP may be a good resource for tools, such as those needed for tracking and reporting.
  • Referral workflow diagram.
    • A visual representation or workflow diagram can support staff in the referral process. Operational integration of behavioral health services means ensuring all referrals, including behavioral health referrals, are integrated in the organization’s referral structure. IHI’s Closing the Loop: A Guide to Safer Ambulatory Referrals in the EHR Era provides a visual nine-step closed loop referral process for specialty referrals as well as suggestions for improving the process.


3. Assess what tools would be beneficial in enhancing and tracking your referral process.

  • Referral guidelines.
    • For social services, positive responses to screening questions or tools may be the prompt for referral.
    • Other types of referrals may be optimized by having documented referral guidelines, such as information needed by specialty provider, in order to best answer referral questions.
  • Communication templates.
    • For high-volume or frequent referral types, a standardized template for communication between the clinic and referral staff can help ensure that essential information is conveyed efficiently. Examples may include referral letters, progress notes, and post-visit summaries of the plan of care.
  • Patient education materials (develop in conjunction with a referral network).
    • Educational materials and resources that explain the referral process and what to expect can enhance patients’ understanding and support referral completion. In addition, consider training medical assistants as well as any dedicated care coordination staff in evidence-based communication techniques, such as teach-back or motivational interviewing, to leverage team-based care in supporting the patient to follow through with the referral after the visit.


4. Develop approaches to fill resource gaps.

  • Reach out to your managed care plan (MCP) to understand what resources are available. MCPs are required to have online provider directories that include specialists, which can be a resource used by a practice to help find contracted specialists near the patient's home. In addition to comprehensive networks of over a dozen core specialty providers and information on behavioral health and substance use resources, many MCPs are building links to access community-based resources through referral platforms that act as a hub to coordinate social needs for patients.
  • Identify external providers and community resources that can serve as partners in care and use the established referral process to fill the gaps in care that they can address.
  • Meet or schedule time with high-volume providers, including community-based organizations, to develop a mutual understanding of the goals of referrals and opportunities for the development of a shared process (e.g. referral form).
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a sample tool to develop a resource list.


5. Regularly review, assess and update the referral processes and network.

As new patient needs are identified, use that opportunity to identify potential resources and expand the referral network. If practices have trouble accessing a contracted specialist for their patient because of either overly long wait times or that they are longer accepting new patients, the MCP is required to approve an out-of-network referral to a more available specialist.
On a periodic basis, review referral tracking reports to identify referral resources that are used most frequently and use that information to reinforce the relationships and provide feedback on value.

Review referral tracking reports to identify resources for which loop closure is lacking or from whom required information is not being received on a regular basis. Reach out to these organizations to reinforce expectations or, if necessary, identify a replacement resource for the network.

Review referral patterns to identify the most common BH referrals (e.g., Enhanced Care Management, psychiatry, therapy, SUD) and completion rates. High levels of off-site referrals with low completion rates can be used as indicators of services that would be better developed inside the practice.

For going deeper in tracking quality improvement metrics, practices can develop metrics to assess the effectiveness of the referral network. This might include tracking referral completion rates, patient satisfaction, and time from referral to specialist appointment.


  1. Weiner M, Perkins AJ, Callahan CM. Errors in completion of referrals among older urban adults in ambulatory care. J Eval Clin Pract. 2010;16(1):76-81. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2753.2008.01117.x 
  2. Mehrotra A, Forrest CB, Lin CY. Dropping the baton: specialty referrals in the United States. Milbank Q. 2011;89(1):39–68. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2011.00619.x. 
  3. Mehrotra A, Forrest CB, Lin CY. Dropping the baton: specialty referrals in the United States. Milbank Q. 2011;89(1):39–68. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2011.00619.x. 
  4. Cai C, Gaffney A, McGregor A, Woolhandler S, Himmelstein DU, McCormick D, et al. Racial and ethnic disparities in outpatient visit rates across 29 specialties. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2021 Nov 1;181(11):1525. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2021.3771