16 Feb, 2023

How Do MRI Referrals Work? Your Complete Guide to GP Referrals and Self-Referrals

An MRI scan is a type of diagnostic imaging technique, which helps doctors identify diseases and health issues. Generally, a faster diagnosis can open up the door to treatment sooner, which is why many people look for ways to refer themselves for an MRI scan to get the answers they need as quickly as possible.

Sometimes, medical processes can seem difficult to navigate. This guide will outline your options for MRI scanning services: how to get referred, how you can refer yourself, and which option is best for you.

What is magnetic resonance imaging?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a type of diagnostic scan. It is used to create detailed images of the inside of your body, to enable clearer insights into your health concerns, and spot any anomalies or need for treatment. Doctors and other health professionals can use MRI scan results to determine the best possible care pathways for their patients.

MRI uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to create images, and the scanner traditionally looks like a short tunnel with a platform, where the patient lies, inside.

What is a referral?

While MRI scans are generally safe and non-invasive, they are still a medical procedure. This means a healthcare professional needs to make sure the scan is safe for each patient, and that the patient will get the right information about their individual condition from the scan.

A referral is a letter that a doctor or referring clinician writes to a scanning centre, to tell them:

  • details about the patient, their medical history, and their condition

  • why the scan is needed

  • ideas about what the problem might be (if possible), to help the radiologist focus on that when interpreting the images

  • any safety concerns that need to be taken into account during the scan, such as medical devices or if the patient might feel claustrophobic

Why would I need a referral for an MRI scan?

If you don't have a medical background, it can be difficult to know which scan type you need, which body parts you need to have scanned, and any issues that could affect your scan eligibility. This includes if you have a medical device such as a pacemaker or cochlear implant, or if you might be pregnant.

Also, depending on the health issues the scan is being ordered for, a contrast agent might be needed, and there are some risks associated with gadolinium contrast materials that should be carefully considered and explained by a professional.

This is the main reason why most private MRI scan providers and the NHS do not offer self-referral options, as input from a healthcare professional is needed. However, there are options available to bypass GP appointments and lengthy referral waiting lists if you need an MRI scan.

What are my options for getting an MRI scan referral?

GP referral or another healthcare provider (NHS or private)

The traditional route to get scanned is to visit your GP, or another healthcare provider such as a hospital consultant, physiotherapist, chiropractor or osteopath. They will usually examine you, ask questions about your concerns, and decide whether a scan is necessary. If so, they will then create a referral for the scan type they think you need.

The benefit of this route is that you are talking to a known clinician, who can provide guidance a the point of referral. However, the downsides of a GP referral are:

  • You need to get an appointment with your healthcare professional and wait to see them. If you are receiving private care, this will incur an additional cost for the appointment.

  • They will need time to write up your referral and send it to a hospital or scanning clinic.

  • You will need to wait for the scanning clinic to receive your referral, and you're then added to the end of the waiting list.

  • When the results are back, you might not know when they have been received.

  • You'll need to see your healthcare provider again to discuss the next steps, which may incur further waiting time, and additional costs if you are having your scan privately.

  • While there are referral guidelines that clinicians use to decide when to refer for imaging, healthcare can be subjective, depending on your condition. One clinician with a certain specialism may not usually refer for imaging, while others may agree that a scan is justified. If you seek a second opinion, you would have to wait for another appointment and incur another charge if you are seeking private care.

Self-referral (private only)

Self-referral options allow you to take action by requesting your own scan. You might not even need to see a GP to do this - many Telehealth providers offer remote clinical guidance to complete referrals, such as at Scan.com. This saves time and is a key benefit, as you can get into a scanning centre's queue sooner if you don't need to wait for an appointment to discuss your referral.

It is worth bearing in mind that self-referrals will still need to be justified by a clinician, to ensure the scan is safe, medically necessary, and will provide the desired results to seek diagnosis and onward care. Another aspect to consider is that self-referral is generally only available in independent healthcare settings and is not offered on the NHS.

While magnetic resonance imaging has no known side effects and is a generally safe procedure, examinations such as CT or X-ray scans involve ionising radiation, which must be carefully considered due to potential negative side effects linked to over-exposure. This is why imaging needs to be evaluated as part of your overall healthcare journey and weighed up appropriately by a qualified clinician.

How to self-refer for an MRI scan

Choosing an independent scanning provider like Scan.com means you can self-refer for an MRI scan, even if you're not certain of the scan details and aren't a clinician yourself. This is because all self-referrals are followed up by an experienced clinician, who checks the details and signs off the referral where it is medically justified. Our referrals follow these steps:

You don't need to worry if you're not 100% certain of your selection, as our expert team of clinicians will review your booking. Within 48 hours of making your payment, they'll call you to discuss your symptoms, find out exactly which scan you need, and check whether it will be safe for you.

They'll be able to amend your booking details, and add a contrast agent if they feel it is required for your scan. They can also make medical notes on your referral that you might not have known to include. This way, you can refer yourself for a scan without visiting a GP, and still get the same rigorous clinical due diligence and high standards of care.

Once you've spoken to our clinicians, and the correct scan has been identified, they will then compile the details into a written referral letter that a scanning centre would expect.

Can I discuss my results?

If you're not sure which scan you need, you may also be uncertain of how you will understand your results. Medical jargon can make it difficult to know what the scan has discovered, which can cause nervousness about the results.

After your scan, the detailed images are interpreted by a radiologist, who specialises in imaging reporting. They will create a written report of their findings and send it to your clinician, who would usually arrange a follow-up appointment to discuss what to do next.

When you self-refer with Scan.com, you'll be informed by email as soon as your report has been received from the imaging centre. You'll then receive two additional benefits:

  • A post-scan consultation with your Scan.com clinician is included in the price. If any anomalies are found in your scan results, you'll automatically receive a call from our clinicians to explain what to do next. If your results are normal, you can request a callback if you have any questions you would like to discuss with your clinician.

  • A patient-friendly interactive report is also included, with clickable diagrams and definitions to explain the medical terms in a language you can easily understand.

Self-referral for MRI scan - is it right for me?

There are several points to take into account when considering a self-referral for your MRI scan:


If you are looking for a scan as fast as possible, a self-referral can help you avoid waiting to see your GP, and not knowing the pace of your referral. Depending on the reason for your scan, if it is non-urgent, you may find NHS waiting lists are longer than you are willing to wait, making a self-referral a good potential option.


The self-referral process is usually only available in private or independent healthcare settings. It is possible to book a scan yourself, but this would involve paying for the procedure. At Scan.com, we work hard to ensure our pricing is as accessible as possible, and we include consultations with doctors and your results within one transparent price, avoiding hidden fees related to appointments and follow-ups. However, if you would not be willing to pay for a scan, a self-referral is not possible.


If you already have a known health condition, such as cancer, and are receiving expedited care from your existing GP or consultant, we would recommend that you remain within their care pathway. If you want to speed up your scan process, it may be worth seeking their advice before attempting a self-referral.

Previous imaging

Certain scan types, such as CT scans, use radiation, which must be monitored carefully to prevent over-exposure. For your safety, if you have recently had imaging, even a self-referral may be denied if the scan is not deemed medically necessary or is not clinically justified. This is why it is important to complete the safety questions accurately during your self-referral.

In conclusion

Self-referrals are still overseen by experienced clinicians, which is for your safety. However, you can self-book a scan with private providers and get this guidance much quicker than it would take to visit your GP. Plus, results and follow-ups tend to be faster as well. However, it is important to remember that medical procedures, no matter how painless and safe they are, must still be medically justified.

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