Originally Featured in Med Monthly Magazine
With more than half of U.S. physicians employed by hospital systems and managed care networks, independent practices are experiencing a significant loss in referrals due to the pressure to keep these patients in the network. According to the Medical Group Management Association, the percentage of medical practices owned by hospitals has soared from 25.6% to 49.5% between 2005 and 2008. The result is that patient referrals to private practices have been dwindling significantly.
This trend continues to increase as hospitals are racing to buy additional primary care practices in this competitive healthcare market. Private practices are feeling the pressure in the form of decreased patient referrals and a lack of meaningful referring relationships. The solution to this concerning dilemma is the establishment of a physician liaison program.
A physician liaison program is designed to grow patient referrals, enhance referring relationships, and increase community exposure. This is achieved with the strategic use of a physician liaison. The physician liaison’s role is to represent your medical practice in the community while strengthening relationships, providing valuable customer service, and addressing concerns as they arise. While not all liaisons are created equal, a good liaison has the professional training and experience to tackle the challenges presented in the field. Hospitals have used physician liaison programs for years to increase referring relationships, but most physicians haven’t considered implementing this marketing strategy on the practice level.
In a 2013 survey from Clinical Advisory Board Physician Survey, 66% of physicians said they were “very unlikely” to change their current referrals without a physician liaison actively communicating and building relationships with them. Establishing new relationships and strengthening current relationships with referring practices are key components of a physician liaison program. The physician liaison focuses on growing new relationships by identifying the needs of the new practice and responding to the areas of concern. Enhancing established referral relationships is achieved through listening to feedback from referral providers and physicians. If problems arise, the physician liaison is available to quickly address the issues and make immediate changes.
A physician liaison program is the most important marketing strategy to develop these crucial connections in the community and to create a robust presence in your targeted market. Time-strapped physicians simply don’t have the availability to network and establish referring relationships with other specialists and primary care providers. Whether you create your own in-house physician liaison program as hospitals do (internal program) or hire a third party company to execute it for you (external program), a physician liaison program can be a highly successful marketing strategy that often pay for themselves in new patient referrals.
Internal Physician Liaison Programs
Drawing inspiration from the original hospital model, an internal physician liaison program is implemented and managed by the practice itself. After a period of setup involving liaison training, support and education, the program will begin to strategize on increasing referrals with the internal physician liaison.
There are many benefits to running an internal physician liaison program, including the establishment of a permanent program that is maintained within the practice. If changes need to be made to the program or the liaison, they can be immediately implemented. In addition, the program will maintain control over the referral data, a vital source of information. Referral data lists practice and provider information along with the referral trends that the liaison program produces. This data alone provides practices with vital statistics that can be utilized to show practice trends.
An internally run program will have a liaison that is dedicated solely to the practice and doesn’t split his/her time representing other practices. Also, the liaison can work on a flexible basis as either a part-time or full-time employee thus potentially assigning other responsibilities to the liaison, such as marketing and social media.
Practices may feel that the task of establishing internal programs is a daunting task, but there are medical marketing companies that will assist with the implementation of these programs. While there is an investment cost associated with this type of program, the ROI usually far outweighs the initial start-up costs of implementing an internal program.
One example of a practice that chose to implement an internal physician liaison program is at an infertility practice in Florida. To combat the decline of patient referrals from hospital-owned obstetric and gynecology practices, this practice felt that it was necessary to establish a physician liaison program with setup assistance of an outside medical marketing company. While the industry standard for new patient growth is a 5% to 10% yearly increase, this infertility practice experienced a 76% average yearly growth in new patients across a span of four years. The infertility practice’s short-term investment in the creation of this program quickly paid for itself in the form of substantial long-term growth results.
External Physician Liaison Programs
External physician liaison programs differ from programs run internally in their delivery method. External programs utilize an outside company to secure a physician liaison on a contractual basis. The liaison is an employee of the outside agency and not the practice. The liaison goes out into the community and represents the practice in the same manner without the overhead cost of an internal employee.
While hiring an outside contractor may seem simpler, there are a few downsides to this approach. The external liaison will likely represent several other practices in the community at the same time. In addition, your practice may or may not have ownership of the important referral data once the program ends. By relying on an external source for referral building, your practice won’t be involved in the day-to-day operations of the liaison. In the end, it is more challenging to control the quality of the liaison’s interactions (i.e. making sure the liaison interacts with providers a minimum of 30% of the time vs. just handing out business cards to the front desk).
In terms of costs, an internal program carries more up-front expenses while an external program may be more costly long term. Therefore, the decision really comes down to which is the best format for your practice. Whether your chose to implement a physician liaison within your practice or with outside assistance, building a strong referral base through a physician liaison program is a vital marketing strategy that can stop the loss of referrals to the hospital systems.
By Amanda Chay
WhiteCoat specializes in marketing solutions for the healthcare industry, including physician liaison programs, website design, internet marketing, social media, and branding. Visit www.whitecoatmedicalmarketing.com to learn more.