You're entitled to ask for a referral for specialist treatment on the NHS.
However, whether you'll get the referral depends on what your GP feels is clinically necessary in your case.
If you wish to be referred to a specialist in a particular field, such as a surgeon or a gynaecologist (a specialist in the female reproductive system), you should see the GP you're registered with.
This is because all your medical records are held by that surgery.
Your GP also generally understands your health history and treatments better than anyone else and will base any decision for a specialist referral on this knowledge.
If you ask your GP to refer you to a specialist, they'll probably suggest that you first try various tests or treatment options to see whether your condition improves.
Generally, you cannot self-refer to a specialist within the NHS, except when accessing sexual health clinics or A&E treatment.
A specialist will only see you with a letter of referral from your GP.
The letter will give the specialist essential background information, such as your medical history, and it'll also contain details that the specialist needs to pay particular attention to.
For more information, see:
- NHS England: what happens when you're referred by your GP to see a specialist (PDF only, 1.4MB)
- NHS England: what happens when you're referred by your GP to see a specialist, black and white version (PDF only, 300KB)
If you want to see a private specialist, you're still advised to get a letter of referral from your GP.
Whether you see a private specialist, with or without a GP referral, or are referred to an NHS specialist, your GP is not obliged to accept the specialist's recommendations.
Find out if you need a referral for private treatment
When doctors write to each other about your care, they should aim to give you a copy of their letters or emails.
If you do not get a copy, you can ask for one.
Choosing a hospital or consultant
If you're referred to a specialist by your GP or another health professional, such as a dentist or ophthalmologist, you may have the right to choose which hospital in England to go to for your first outpatient appointment.
You can also choose which consultant-led team will be in charge of your treatment.
This means that if you choose a particular consultant for a procedure, you can choose to have your first outpatient appointment at the hospital where the consultant works and be treated by that consultant's team.
Find out more about consultant choice
Once you have decided on a hospital, you could book your first outpatient appointment through the NHS e-Referral Service.
This can happen in the following ways:
- your GP can book it while you're at the surgery
- you can book it online using the appointment request letter your GP gives you
- you can phone the NHS e-Referral Service line on 0345 608 8888 (open Monday to Friday, 8am to 8pm, and on weekends and bank holidays from 8am to 4pm)
Find out more about patient choice of hospitals
Under the NHS Constitution, if your GP refers you for a condition that's not urgent, you have the right to start treatment led by a consultant within 18 weeks from when you're referred, unless you want to wait longer or waiting longer is clinically right for you.
Other services you may access through your GP
As well as specialist referrals, your GP can help you find the right stop smoking services, weight loss service or other self-management programmes that help prevent or manage a condition.
Self-management programmes are not simply about educating you about your condition.
They also let you take control of your health by learning new skills to manage your condition on a daily basis.
But these services may not be available on the NHS and you may have to pay for them yourself.
Some areas may offer local schemes that allow patients to have subsidised access to gyms or weight loss services such as Weight Watchers, Slimming World or Rosemary Conley.
It's worth asking your GP if there are any schemes available in your area.