• Include relevant clinical details in an imaging referral – including signs, symptoms and location of pain, provisional diagnosis, the clinical question being addressed, and red flags for particular conditions.
  • Inclusion of these details in a referral will focus the investigation and assist in the radiologist's interpretation of results.

For the findings of a medical imaging test to assist in diagnosis or management, it is important that key details are conveyed in the referral.1 This helps ensure the radiologist is aware of what the referring doctor is looking for, and assists in 'ruling in' and/or 'ruling out' the appropriate range of conditions.2

Often, patients with chronic abdominal pain have had previous imaging studies – ask your patient about previous medical imaging tests and results to avoid unnecessary duplication of tests.3

Benefits of a detailed imaging referral

Referral information directly impacts on patient care and safety.4 Including sufficient detail such as the provisional diagnosis and the clinical question being asked can help to ensure the imaging test is appropriate and focused.

Incidental findings discovered through medical imaging can cause uncertainty and lead to further investigations – for example, to exclude a serious disorder.5 Such an approach can result in a cascade of tests and procedures,5 where the harms – including patient anxiety and other costs – outweigh the benefit.

Most incidental findings are benign, have little or no clinical significance and do not always require further investigation.5 To assist in clinical decision-making, the American College of Radiology Incidental Findings Committee has published a standardised approach to managing incidental findings.5

Essentials to include in a medical imaging referral

  • Preparation: Clear instructions for preparation required for the investigation.4
  • Clinical question being addressed: A clear diagnostic question will help focus the radiologist's interpretation of results.4
  • Provisional diagnosis: A provisional diagnosis on the request can help guide the protocol for imaging investigation. This will help to determine what conditions are being ruled in and ruled out.1
  • Relevant clinical details and family history: Can give clues as to the most likely diagnosis and area to focus on.1
  • Red flags (see below), alarm symptoms or warning signs: Note any red flags which can serve as indicators or warning signs for specific clinical suspicion.3
  • Signature and date from requesting doctor.

Red flags for chronic abdominal pain

Patients presenting with chronic abdominal pain due to clinically non-specific causes or suspected functional gastrointestinal disorders, are common in primary care. Red flags to watch out for in these patients, and to note in the referral, include:3

  • age > 50 years
  • anaemia
  • awakening at night
  • blood in stools
  • family history of colorectal cancer, irritable bowel syndrome or coeliac disease
  • fever
  • pain through to the back
  • unexplained weight loss.

Some of these 'red flags' for chronic abdominal pain may indicate that a referral is needed to a gastroenterologist for upper gastrointestinal endoscopy or colonoscopy as the next line of investigation – rather than diagnostic imaging.3

Refer to the WA Department of Health Diagnostics Imaging Pathways for detailed recommendations, and learn more about how they can be used to guide decisions about diagnostic imaging for your patients.