Hospitals could suffer “financial problems” as a result of GPs referring fewer patients, the British Medical Association warns today, after new figures showed the number of referrals has fallen by 4.7 per cent since the beginning of April.

According to the NHS statistics, the total number of referrals that were actually seen also dropped by 5.2 per cent

The data, which included records up to July, also highlighted a 2.7 per cent year-on-year decrease in the volume of first-time outpatient attendances.

A BMA spokesman said: “The NHS is under a lot of pressure to do less, for example through referral management initiatives, which seem to be on the increase.

“These may save money but for every lost referral there is a patient who is not getting diagnosed or treated, and a hospital that is more likely to encounter financial problems.”

But a Department of Health spokesman said the figures demonstrated that people were being treated in “the most appropriate setting”.

He said: “The government has protected NHS spending and will continue to deliver improvements in care.

“These figures suggest that the NHS is starting to treat more people in the most appropriate setting, with a movement of care away from hospital settings and towards care closer to home - preventing unnecessary admissions.

“Our modernisation plans will safeguard the future of the NHS, improve care for patients, drive up quality and support doctors and nurses in providing the best possible care for their patients.”

Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said the decrease in the number of referrals could be down to “a combination of any number of things”.

She added: “There has, however, been an immense amount of work carried out in recent years to reduce the number of referrals and offer a more preventative style of healthcare, and these figures could be reflecting the fruits of this work.

“The RCGP also issued a report only this week promoting the model of Care Planning, to help patients with long term conditions such as diabetes manage their symptoms more effectively, in partnership with their GP.

“Models like Care Planning can help to significantly drive down referrals and provide these patients with more confidence to cope better with their conditions.”