Referrals are Key for a Strong Practice: Tips for Specialists

August 1, 2012

Specialists need to understand that they need to play a personal role in developing key referral relationships, something simply running an ad won't accomplish.

For a physician’s practice to be profitable, revenue must exceed costs. Physician’s productivity is the key to financial success. For specialist physicians, much of their business depends on referrals from other physicians. The key for most specialists, then, is to have a strong referral stream that supports a busy and productive office.

Many specialty groups starting new practices, or trying to grow an existing practice, spend time "marketing" their practices with ineffective efforts. These include methods such as newspaper articles, ads in local papers, or magazines, flyers, pamphlets, radio ads, and so forth. While each of these has value, they are not the most effective tool - by far.

Remember, if your practice depends on referrals from other providers, your target market is that provider or that provider’s staff who are making the referral. These referring providers are making referrals to specialists based on a few key perceptions. These include the clinical expertise of the specialist, the ease of making a referral and getting an appointment for their patient, the quality of feedback the specialist provides back to them, and whether the specialist accepts the patient’s insurance.

Specialists need to understand that they need to play a personal role in developing these key relationships, something that simply running an ad will not accomplish. It means that the physician is going to personally put some time and skin into the game. In most situations, a pretty face or fancy degree is not going to be enough to have referrals start coming your way.

Specific methods that have proven themselves effective in this effort include:

• Provide quality healthcare to every patient you see.

•Personal visits by the specialist to the office of the referring physician. The referring office needs to know who you are and how you can help their patients. Often this includes providing a lunch or breakfast if the specialist wants time to meet with all of the office staff. However, a brief, personal visit with the referring physician is often received well without the need for food or a sit-down meeting.

•After arranging a face-to-face meeting, use marketing collateral to stay top of mind. A few examples of effective collateral includes a small bottle of hand sanitizer with your name and phone number, a small card that can be posted at the nurse station, and other simple, professional, and useful items that keep your name and number available to the office. Creativity with collateral can be fun at this point, but collateral alone will not accomplish the same result.

•Treat the referring provider as a customer. Work with the provider and staff to develop an efficient referral process. If you can make it easy to refer to your office through "VIP" treatment, you are much more likely to have providers and clinical staff members think of you when they need to make a referral. Remember, their offices are more than likely also trying to find ways to be more efficient with their operations.

• Get on as many payer panels as possible and provide clear communication to the referring provider’s office of what insurances you take. If the referring office has to spend time figuring out who they can refer to you, the less likely referrals will be sent your way.

•Develop clear and concise reports to send back to the provider along with a policy to make direct contact whenever possible. Primary-care providers, especially, value feedback that is timely and informative. With advances in technology, developing effective ways to send electronic reports can be very valuable.

•After developing a relationship, continue to nourish it with regular communication. Subsequent visits by a staff person representing the specialist can also be mixed in and effective. However, it is important for the specialist to not become aloof in the relationship.

Dixon Davis is the vice president of practice management for AAPC. Over the last 15 years, Dixon has held senior leadership positions in healthcare administration in a variety of settings including independent practices, integrated health systems, and independent physician associations (IPA).