WHEN GPs want to get an appointment with a hospital specialist for one of their patients, most of them still have to use the old paper method of a letter.
But the way forward is electronic referral, where the doctor uses modern technology to send the patient's details to the hospital via computer.
It means it is less likely to get lost or remain unopened or lead to the same patient being put on several waiting lists.
The first hospital in the country to have introduced electronic referral is the Mercy Hospital in Cork.
The problems associated with old-fashioned methods came to light in recent years when it emerged that up to 30,000 GP referral letters were sitting in the post room of Tallaght Hospital either "unopened" or "unprocessed".
In another hospital, a vital laboratory test result was not seen because it had been attached on a post-it note to the back of a GP referral letter.
Patients in the rest of the country will have to wait until the results of this pilot phase come through.
The system allows the GP to send the information electronically to the hospital.
The GP then receives an acknowledgement of receipt of the referral. The HSE said work was under way at pilot site hospitals to ensure that each referral results in an electronic response message to the GP within seven days. It should detail if the patient has been listed for an urgent or a routine appointment, if the appointment date is available, or if the appointment is not yet made.
Mercy University Hospital chief executive Sandra Daly said: "To date we have received over 250 electronic general referrals by GPs and we expect this to increase rapidly now that all specialties are included in the electronic referral process."