Maintaining Your Patient Referral Sources

July 6, 2012

Here are four ways you can strengthen your medical practice and avoid a revenue-shriveling business mistake many physicians make.

One of my subscribers, a specialist, got a large number of referrals from a local family practice doctor. This primary-care doctor was very busy, very well-known, respected in the community, and sent a steady stream of patients to this guy's practice.

One day, this family physician shut down his busy practice due to legal problems for about six months, and the referral source dried up overnight.

It's never been the same since, even though the practice eventually re-opened.

This served as a serious wake-up call - it's dangerous to depend on one source of patients!

Why you need multiple streams of incoming patients in your practice

It's widely known that referring physicians and word-of-mouth contribute 80 percent to 90 percent of all patients coming into a medical practice, especially for specialists.

Therefore, most marketing consultants will advise a physician to focus their efforts on referring doctors.

This is a sound strategy when the efforts are spread over several practices and several areas, never relying too heavily on one referring doctor to feed your practice.

In general there are too many variables to rely on just a few referral sources. These include:
• Changing personalities - office managers or physician partners may change and become more difficult to work with
• Personnel turnover - front office staff or nurses you may deal with may shift their loyalties in a practice that's not closely monitored by the referring doctor
• Leadership turnover - especially true for hospital systems where a new CEO may come in and make sweeping changes, directly influencing patient flows

Keep in mind that referring doctors are more fickle and emotion-driven than you want to believe. They can switch loyalties quickly without a long discussion with you - it's less confrontational that way.

Finally, today's healthcare environment spawns many distortions in the marketplace, like hospital systems hiring their own doctors, with their own top-down loyalties and referral mechanisms.

What can you do about these referral source risk factors?

1. Keep marketing

Don't get complacent about keeping your practice's name out there. Brainstorm fresh ideas of marketing efforts that don't involve or depend on referral sources.

2. Keep networking

Stay in touch with your current sources of patients. This could involve talking with other physicians at lunch or a simple phone call every few months to maintain a connection.

3. Open your eyes to new relationships

If you've never reached out to a certain group or individual, make a new effort to do so. If you've failed to connect in the past, the reasons may have changed if six months or a year have gone by.

4. Establish an online presence

Make sure your profiles are filled out on the major doctor rating sites and occasionally Google yourself to see how the search engines see your practice.

It's even better to be proactive about starting a blog, business Facebook Page, or just optimizing your website.

A final warning illustration

In the world of online business, Google is loved and hated by people trying to make a living with websites like eBay, Craigslist, or Google AdWords.

Many of these businesses have failed because the owners relied too heavily on a Google service. Once the service changed or the algorithm changed, their business was vaporized, and they had to start over.

Successful business owners create contingency and backup systems that avoid reliance on one source of income.

I encourage you to think each week of some small way you can create this in your medical practice.

I'm sure I forgot to mention some non-referral-based sources of patients. What have you had success with?

Leave some ideas in the comments!

Find out more about C. Noel Henley and our other Practice Notes bloggers.