Building a strong referral network is a critical aspect of ensuring your medical practice is a success. For most medical practices, the primary source of new patients is other health care providers. To grow and sustain your medical practice's revenue stream, it's imperative to continue attracting patients who require your services. Beyond advertising and networking with insurance companies, establishing a strong referral network is a great way to bring in new business.
"With few exceptions, physicians and other health care providers remain the most important sources of patient acquisition," said Daniel Weinbach, principal of health care marketing firm The Weinbach Group. "The only other source that comes close is a patient's insurance company," he told Business News Daily.
However, as health care organizations continue to merge and consolidate, it can be difficult for small practitioners to establish those much-needed referral relationships. And when a referral channel is set up, longevity becomes a priority. How can a provider strengthen and protect that relationship for the long term? Business News Daily reached out to several experts in the health care industry to find out their advice for establishing, maintaining and strengthening referral networks for a small medical practice. Here's what they had to say. [Related: How to Open a Private Medical Practice, Step by Step]
Establish a plan and stick to it
"Start by creating a plan or working with a health care marketing expert to create a plan; then execute," Weinbach said. "Perhaps most importantly, physicians and their practice managers must have patience, discipline and confidence in their plan.Many practices expect immediate results from their efforts; however, establishing a referral network is a process, not an event. An effective program requires continuity and frequency. Too often, practices change course or discontinue their referral-building programs before they demonstrate results."
Adopt technology and embrace interoperability
"In health care, [interoperability] means being able to share electronic information across the health care continuum to improve efficiencies and deliver better outcomes and patient care," said Jana Macon, vice president of Strategic Services at software company Brightree. "The ideal solution is cloud-based and will allow the provider to receive referrals electronically. This streamlines the referral process for both the referral source and the provider, reducing human error and eliminating paperwork." [Related: Choosing the Right Electronic Health Records System for Your Medical Practice]
Keep communication channels open
"Communicate with your referrers on a regular basis about mutual patients of interest," said Joseph Glaser, nuclear medicine physician at Radiologic Associates PC. "This will increase the quality of patient care and strengthen your relationship with the referrers. Let your mutual patients know that you have communicated with their other doctors, and they will feel like they are getting quality care (which they are). Projecting this to your patients and referrers will make it more likely that people will seek you out."
Know your practice and your target audience
"Of course, the best tactics for building patient volume will vary widely based on the practice's specialty," Weinbach said. "For example, growing a primary care practice requires a more consumer-friendly approach, while growing an oncology practice requires targeted outreach to physician referrers, like radiologists and site-disease specialists. Unfortunately, there are few 'quick fixes' in health care marketers' toolboxes. That said, we have found great success with online search advertising, especially when our clients have well-designed, highly functional websites."
Welcome new providers to the area
"Develop a plan to contact and welcome new physicians in town," advised Andrea Eliscu, president of Medical Marketing Inc."Call or write a personal letter of welcome or introduction. Share a little about your practice, and provide your personal cellphone number. Offer to serve as a resource, whether for medical contacts or family needs like schools and day cares. Go a step further and invite the new physician to be your guest at a professional meeting or community event."
Schedule face-to-face meetings with referrers
"When a specialist is looking to increase their referrals, a face-to-face meeting makes a big difference — enhancing the physician-to-physician relationship counts," said Wayne Lipton, managing partner at Concierge Choice Physicians. "Also, interacting with the referring physician's staff is a way to impact the number of referrals. Ultimately, it comes down to performance — timely appointments, appropriate communication and top-level services."
Get your name out there
"Make yourself known and available; advertise locally," Glaser said. "If there are local medical societies, professional societies, chambers of commerce, join and be known. Keep track of where your greatest return comes from, and ramp it up accordingly. Network with other health care providers, including nonphysicians [such as dentists]. They may be sources of referrals, and you may be able to reciprocate as you get to know and trust each other's expertise."
Keep the referrer informed after seeing the patient
"When the referral source doesn't have to constantly follow up on paperwork or a patient's treatment, they'll want to work with you on an ongoing basis," Macon said. "In addition, remaining steadfast in providing excellent patient care makes the referral source's life easier because they won't need to see the referred patient again for the same issue. In the world of outcomes-based reimbursements, it's more important than ever for referral sources to partner with the best providers."
Re-evaluate and update referral relationships as necessary
"One thing to do is to reassess regularly and to be aware of the changes that occur in practices," Lipton said. "For example, what may have been a good referral in radiology five years ago may not be one now as facilities and equipment age."
Looking for more information on owning and operating a medical practice? Our medical practice guide includes everything you need to know about how to open a practice, with advice from experts who've done it.