Implementing a Physician Liaison Program

January 13, 2015

Losing referrals to the local hospital? Here's one marketing tool to retain patients and revenue.

There is one thing that remains constant in healthcare: The playing field is always changing. Hospital systems represent one such source of change. Across the country, hospitals have been on a buying spree in the last few years as a way of expanding their hospital networks.

The Medical Group Management Association shows a nearly 75 percent increase in the number of active doctors employed by hospitals since 2000. In addition, a survey from HealthLeaders Media shows that 74 percent of hospital executives plan to increase physician hiring in the next 12 months to 36 months.

The result is an overall loss of patient volume and practice revenue that is experienced among private practices in an already competitive medical market. The solution to this pressing concern, and the most important strategy for every private practice that relies heavily on referrals, is the establishment of a physician liaison program.

GROWING REFERRALS

A physician liaison program is designed to increase patient referrals, strengthen relationships with providers and staff, and provide valuable customer service. A strong liaison program will help offset hospital system losses by driving patients directly to the private practice and building a foundation of strong referring relationships. The ultimate goal of the program is to increase patient referrals from existing providers and secure new business from non-referring physicians.

At the heart of the program lies a well-trained physician liaison. The liaison serves as a personal contact for physicians, practice managers, and staff. He is available to speak intelligently and promote clinical services and treatments, as well as addressing questions and concerns as they arise. The physician liaison works to cultivate positive, open, and helpful relationships among community practices, medical staff, and providers alike. The liaison is essentially the glue between the practice and the referring offices.

Additional benefits of a physician liaison program include:

• Locating and securing business from new referral sources;

• Strategically promoting the practice's desired services, treatments, and providers;

• Strengthening practices' and providers' reputations in the community;

• Positioning practices and providers as cutting-edge experts in the field;

• Managing negative feedback in a prompt manner; and

• Keeping practices aware of changes in the marketplace.

Most hospital systems employ physician liaison programs that are focused on physician outreach and referral retention. Hospitals understand the value and importance of these programs, and focus a large portion on their outreach effort and marketing budget on the application of these programs. While most private practices haven't considered implementing this marketing strategy on the practice level, it can be an affordable option that pays for itself in new business.

While there is an investment cost associated with this type of program, a physician liaison program can bring increased referrals and profitability back into the practice.

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

The main focus for the physician liaison is to build meaningful relationships between the practice and the referring offices. Research shows that providers refer to specialists who they trust and have strong relationships with. In a 2013 survey from the Clinical Advisory Board Physician Survey, 66 percent of physicians said they were "very unlikely" to change their current referral pattern without a physician liaison actively communicating and building relationships with them.

A skilled liaison has the professional training and in-the-field experience to develop meaningful relationships by establishing trust and loyalty. This is achieved with clear communication and active listening skills along with direct interaction between physicians and providers.

FIND THE RIGHT FIT

When implementing a successful physician liaison program, it's not as simple as asking your nurse to hand out fruit baskets once a quarter. There are two problems with this strategy: No. 1, a nurse is not trained in physician liaison tactics and often cannot get past the gatekeeper (i.e. the front-desk attendant), and No. 2, interaction with referring offices has to be much more frequent than once a quarter in order to gain traction.

A good physician liaison program has clear goals (How much do you plan to increase referrals?), a strong strategy (How often will the liaison visit practices and which practices?), and an accurate tracking system (How will you measure your goals and receive reports on the liaison's progress and findings?).

The costs associated with implementing a physician liaison program are always a concern for private practices. An initial investment is necessary, but once up and running, the program should pay for itself in new business. Keep in mind that a full-time employee doesn't have to be hired to serve as the physician liaison. A part-time contractor will also suffice. It just depends on whether the liaison's role will also include other marketing responsibilities, such as social media management.

While it may feel like the task of establishing a liaison program is daunting, there are medical marketing companies that can handle everything from the hiring and training to implementation and strategy.

CASE STUDY

One example of a private practice that successfully implemented a physician liaison program is an oncology practice in North Carolina. Previously, this practice thrived for 40 years as an oncology and hematology practice. That was until five years ago, when they noted a 30 percent decrease in referrals coming from newly employed, hospital-owned, primary-care offices in the surrounding area. With these pressing issues, they hired an outside medical marketing agency to assist with the creation and implementation of the physician liaison program in their practice. Affordability was an important concern for this practice, thus a part-time contractor was hired for the role as physician liaison.

Comprehensive training for the physician liaison began with a strategic approach aimed at increasing market share and establishing strong referring relationships. The liaison began by shadowing the practice for two weeks to increase her knowledge of the practice and oncology before stepping out in the field. In addition, the liaison was trained on techniques for gaining access into practices and encountering resistance in the field. With carefully targeted practices, the liaison began the work of growing the oncology practice and expanding its reach in the community. In a matter of months, the physician liaison program was deemed a success.

With an industry standard for new patient growth at 5 percent to 10 percent per year, this practice experienced a 24 percent increase in new patients and a 20 percent increase in oncology patients in the first year of implementation. The oncology practice's short-term investment in the creation of this program quickly paid for itself in the form of substantial long-term growth results.

The decision to implement a physician liaison within a private practice is a vital marketing strategy that can stop the trend of referrals lost to the hospital systems by building a steady referral stream and enhancing relationships. It can also help practices successfully compete against fellow specialists in their market who might also be considering implementing a physician liaison program to increase market share too.

Amanda Chayis director of physician liaison and affiliate programs for WhiteCoat Designs, which specializes in marketing solutions for the healthcare industry. E-mail her at achay@whitecoat-designs.com.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Physicians Practice.