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The Care and Feeding of Your Physician Referral Network

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May 10, 2019

DukeHealth, the academic medical system of Duke University, recently sought advice about physician referral marketing from healthcare advertising agency principal, Dan Weinbach. Based on his more than 25 years at the helm of a Miami ad agency, he provided input to the story's author, Jennifer Arnold. Read the entire article below.

It's a fact: You can't provide patient care without patients. And even if you have plenty of patients right now, it's important to nurture your referral network to ensure that your practice continues to boom.

In the past, referrals happened more organically among doctors who knew each other from professional and social circles. But experts say that's changed. "Many PCPs are outpatient-only now," says Nick A. Fabrizio, PhD, FACPE, FACHE, principal consultant with the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA). "They no longer see the specialists when they round on patients in the hospital."

In today's environment, the care and feeding of your referral network requires a more deliberate approach. Here are three key areas to focus on:

1. Building Relationships
Let's face it—no one will refer to you if they don't know who you are. Seek out opportunities to network with other physicians, whether it be through your health system, the local hospital, professional associations or civic groups. Identify the key physicians most likely to refer to your practice and introduce yourself. Invite them to join you for coffee or a meal.

It's also important to remember the variety of care extenders in practices today, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants. "[Care extenders] are handling the lion's share of care management in many practices," says Daniel Weinbach, president and CEO of The Weinbach Group, a healthcare marketing firm based in Miami. "They're making referrals too." Be sure to include this group of clinicians in your relationship-building efforts.

2. Delivering Service
But it's not just about clinicians. "You can buy all the lunches you want, but if you don't deliver good service, you're not going to get referrals," says Fabrizio. It's still about relationships, but from a different perspective: how does your office staff interact with the staff at other practices? "The staff-to-staff relationships are even more important," says Fabrizio.

In reality, much of the referral process is administrative. If your practice doesn't run like a well-oiled machine, referring office staff will find one that does. Unanswered phone calls, missing paperwork, and uncooperative staff members will strangle even the strongest physician-to-physician relationship.

Ensure that your administrative staff have a defined process for making and receiving referrals, including expected timeframes for returning calls, scheduling appointments, and sending follow-up reports. And of course, a positive attitude and a friendly demeanor go a long way, too. Depending on the size of your practice, it may make sense to have a dedicated referral coordinator. Getting it right may require investing more in your staff—but chances are, the investment will pay off with more referrals.

3. Promoting Your Practice
Here comes the M word: marketing. "There is perhaps a greater bias against marketing among physicians than you'll find in any other professional group," says Weinbach. "You don't go to medical school to learn how to market your practice. But operating a business is part of being a physician."

We're not talking about billboards or infomercials. Something as simple as an introductory letter or email sent to practices in your area counts as marketing. "The knee-jerk response is always 'doctors don't read their mail or email,'" says Weinbach. His response is, "you're absolutely right, some don't—the same holds true in consumer marketing—but there are millions who do."

The goal is to make other practices aware of what you have to offer them and their patients. "Communicate substantive content to your referral network that is valuable to the people receiving it and doesn't feel like marketing," says Weinbach. Ideas include educational information, summaries of recent studies, and case histories. You can also use these communication vehicles to announce new staff, new equipment or new technologies you've added to the practice.

Over time, you'll learn the nuances of each practice's culture. The question to ask yourself is "who is the gatekeeper?" That's who you want to target. In some practices, the lead physician has his or her hand in everything. In others, it's the practice manager. "Because of that variation, you have to cast a wide net," says Weinbach. "There's no one-size-fits-all approach."

Whatever type of marketing communication you do, aim for consistency over time. "My advice for any practice, whether [it's] a sole practitioner or a 1,200-physician network, is develop a plan and maintain discipline in the execution of the plan," says Weinbach. "You'll see results if you stick with it."

Make sure your patient referral stream stays steady with these simple strategies to build and maintain relationships.