Referral development is in the top five must-haves, if you want to grow your practice. That is according to Phyllis Marino and Susan Boydell, two executive marketers who spoke at the recent annual meeting of the Medical Group Management Association. Referral development is about nurturing the referral sources you have and pursuing the ones you want. To do this, you need to meet their needs. Referral sources want two things from the physicians they refer to, says Boydell: “Take good care of my patient and make it easy for me to work with you.”

The first part of that, taking good care of patients, is what you do. The second is where you may need some work and where healthcare marketing specialists like Marino and Boydell excel.

“When a primary care physician refers a patient to a specialist,” says Boydell, that patient is their number one consideration. “We need to make sure that they feel good about that referral.” The best way for a specialist to make this happen is by communicating well with the referrer.

“I spend every week all across this country talking to hospitals and health systems about communication and I’m going to tell you right now every primary care office; [communication] is one of their number one complaints.”

According to Boydell and Marino, communication equals marketing yourself to your physician colleagues, and there are some simple rules to follow.

Rules of marketing to physician colleagues

Clarify the expectations of referring physicians

This usually means more than just taking good care of their patient clinically. In addition to having a happy patient, they may expect you to see the patient by a certain time, run specific tests, or repeat the physical exam.

Develop a consistent approach to communication

Most physician referrers at the very least want a timely summary of your findings once you have seen the patient.

Take care of their egos

Everyone wants to feel respected and referring physicians are no exception. Make sure you express gratitude for their referral.

Take advantage of hospital-sponsored programs

“Almost every hospital and health system out there has some sort of physician liaison team or physician relations team that call on physicians to earn their referrals,” says Boydell. “Take advantage of it.”

Engage your staff in new business success

Make sure your staff are aware of important referral sources and that they take part in the relationship you have with them. After all, they will likely be the ones answering the phone when a referral office calls.

Track, trend and monitor

“Really track where those referrals are coming from,” says Boydell. “Look at when they’re up and when they’re down.” Know whether the investments you are making are paying off and how. This will help you better direct your marketing efforts.

It is vitally important to understand who your referral sources are and how much they contribute to your practice. Boydell and Marino say you can usually divide them into three categories:

  1. Those who are loyal and long-established sources of referrals
  2. Those who give you some referrals but also give some to your competitors
  3. Those who aren’t referring to you but could

Your loyal referrers usually make up the bulk of your business, so you need to keep them happy. The most potential for growth comes from nurturing the second group. The third group is also worth pursuing, but know when to cut your losses, as it can be very difficult to change referral patterns.

In the end, Boydell and Marino emphasize that referral development is really all about relationship building, and relationships require communication to thrive. “If you want to differentiate your practice, says Boydell. “Nail that, because no one’s doing it very well.”

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