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Remember Handshakes?


A robust network of peers, colleagues, and other contacts can put the heat on a career

A robust network of peers, colleagues, and other contacts can put the heat on a professional career and make it sizzle.

Ignoring the power of networking may send it fizzling - as in going, going, gone.

The pervasiveness of electronic tools like personal digital assistants and instant messaging means that, for many professionals, face-to-face networking is a lost art. Add to that inexperience, weak social skills, perceived cost prohibitions, and lack of time, and physicians may find themselves lacking strong business networks.

Get over it, experts say.

Developing professional connections isn't brain surgery, though you do have to work at it. Once you have the skills, the purpose, and understand your goals, you may wonder why you didn't begin sooner.

Why network?

"We can't know everything on our own," says Michael Fleming, MD, board member of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), and an avid proponent of professional networking. A network of colleagues and peers makes it easier to get a wide perspective of opinions on clinical or ethical questions, Fleming explains.

A network also functions as a referral process. Networking guru Deb Haggerty, president of Positive Connections, an Orlando-based career consulting firm, and co-author of The Communication Coach, agrees. "Networking is in part about constantly keeping in mind to whom you can refer others," she says. Doctors, in particular, can benefit from this immensely.

What networking isn't, Haggerty adds, is a sales call. It's about moving beyond a business-card base and the banalities of "so, what do you do."

Doctors need to work on building business relationships to expand a referral base, build a practice, promote skills and training, and eventually enhance patient care. This is especially true for family physicians, Fleming says.

But self-validation is also among his reasons for maintaining a professional network. "To be among your own kind, so to speak, is important for reinvigoration," he explains. Physicians are one of the key service providers for whom most people get a recommendation, says Ivan R. Misner, founder and CEO of Business Network International, and co-author of Masters of Networking: Building Relationships for Your Pocketbook and Soul. For this reason, says Misner, physicians in particular must cultivate strong, consistent networks. "And if they're depending just on medical conferences and the like, they're looking the wrong way," he adds.

Get out and about

Misner suggests that doctors participate in local chambers of commerce, rotary clubs, and other organizations to network with professionals in a nonmedical setting. Another tool that's worked well for Misner's medical practice clients is designating a liaison - perhaps a nonhealth professional member of the practice - to speak at or attend meetings at local clubs, organizations, and gatherings. "This might be a full-time person who works in the office, but spends a third of his or her time in a marketing capacity," Misner explains.

There's some training involved, of course, but the benefits can be tremendous - particularly learning the business techniques of other organizations. Thanking referral sources for meeting with you or providing information is also a simple - and imperative - way to maintain contacts. "If you forget the follow-up, you might as well have not done anything," warns Haggerty.

Beyond referral networking, physicians still need to maintain visibility among their peers. The best way to do it is the old-fashioned way, says Fleming, who recommends that physicians make time with practice colleagues, and attend hospital staff meetings in addition to state, regional, and national medical association meetings.

Misner describes networking as a farming process, rather than a hunting process. Physicians should spend at least a couple hours of week cultivating their networks.

"Whatever the reason, physicians are harming themselves if they're not networking at some level," adds Fleming.

Daphne Swancutt can be reached at editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article first appeared in the September/October 2001 issue of Physicians Practice.

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