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What to do when your referral sources dry up

By Amanda Chay, WhiteCoat

On a recent phone call with an urologist discussing his marshutterstock_86514352_smallketing strategy, the physician lamented about his “trusted doctor friends” dramatically stopping the number of patients they send to him each month. This ongoing decrease has significantly reduced his patient volume and overall practice revenue. The urologist was at a cross road with his practice as a result of these decreases. Unfortunately, this is not a unique situation, as the majority of the physicians that we talk to each week speak of similar situations. Whether the referring relationships become strained from competition encroachments, hospital buy-outs, or newly formed alliances, the results are the same. Patient referrals from trusted sources are drying up.

The combat this trend, the following suggestions are recommended: contribute to your relationships; keep abreast of changes in the referrals; follow up if changes are noted; and implement a program dedicated to increasing patient referrals.

Reinvest back into your relationships

“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other is gold.”- Lyrics from a Girl Scouts song

In the medial community, relationships are built on trust, understanding, and clear communication as physicians typically send their patients to other physicians whom they have established relationships with. Research backs this concept too. According to the Advisory Board Physician Survey, two-thirds of all referral decisions are based solely on the physician’s preference.

It is important that you don’t take for granted that these referral sources will continue to stream into your practice if you don’t invest back into the relationship. Relationships are a two-way street. You have to consciously contribute to relationships or they can weaken. This can be achieved by providing prompt communication to the referring physician on their patients, such as sending out treatment reports within two weeks after the patient is seen. In addition, an occasional “thank you” goes a long way. A brief phone call or email will suffice as a means to way to say “thanks.” At top referring office(s) a special way to thank the practice is with a food item to be shared with the entire staff and not just the doctors, such as a tray of cookies or lunch.

Other ways to reinvest back into the relationship include:

  • Provide ongoing education to your referrers to add value to your relationship with them (especially if it helps them better understand when to refer certain patients to you),
  • Be accessible (offer up your email and/or cell phone number for whenever they need a quick consult on a patient), and
  • Return the favor (reciprocate by referring patients back when possible).

Keep up-to-date on referral patterns

Frequently, medical practices will notice an overall decrease in patient referrals as they analyze their annual reports for the practice. The referral trends that they discover may have shifted months ago, but not noticed until long after the referral patterns have been altered. Referrals are the life force for specialty practices as 60% to 90% of all referrals (such as oncology, bariatrics, or orthopedics) come from primary care. Even patient referral drops of 10% can make a substantial impact on the overall practice.

As you analyze the referral data, review the number of referrals sent to your practice on a consistent basis. Options including monthly, quarterly, and on an annual basis. Compare these numbers to the same timeframes for the previous year. Keep an eye out for data outliers, such as a significant decrease of patients sent from a particular city, specialty, or month. Decreases of 25% and higher should merit an immediate follow up.

When analyzing the numbers, look for patterns of referral behavior from both practices and physicians. Such as one physician at a practice sending fewer patients across the span of three months, while the other physicians continue to send a higher number.

It is good practice to analyze the service and procedures that referring practices are sending as well. By doing this, you can identify certain services/procedures to promote more.

If the tasks become overwhelming, consider reaching out for assistance from an outside medical marketing agency or setting up an online CRM (customer relationship management) system to track the referrals internally.

Follow up

When a significant decrease or increase in referrals has been uncovered, take note of this change. Make a point to follow up with this practice with direct contact through either your physician liaison or staff member (physician, office manager, nurse). If there is an established relationship among physicians, encourage your physician to make a brief phone call to ask questions, such as:

  • Thank you for trusting us with your patient’s care. Is there anything that we can do to better serve your practice?
  • Are you experiencing any difficulty when referring patients to us?
  • Or perhaps: We have noticed that you are not sending as many patients as usual. Is there anything that we can do to win back your business?

Be aware that a delicate approach is needed here as relationships are fragile and need to be handled carefully.

Consider a program designed to increase referrals

If your practice has experienced a significant decrease in referrals and your competition is increasing, the best solution to this problem is a physician liaison program.

A physician liaison program is designed to increase patient referrals, strengthen relationships with providers and staff, and provide valuable customer service. The ultimate goal of the program is to increase patient referrals from existing providers and secure new business from non-referring physicians.

Physician liaisons serve as the link between your practice and referring providers. The liaisons are not a pharmaceutical rep, and they are not random employees you pluck from your practice that visits referring practices twice a year to hand out business cards. They are skilled, knowledgeable, and strategically-minded professionals who are responsible for driving a steady flow of new patient referrals to your practice. The physician liaison works to cultivate a positive, open and helpful relationships among practices, physicians, and medical staff and alike.

With a watchful eye, you can stay on top of the referral trends at your practice so that your referral sources don’t dry up.

What to do when your referral sources dry up

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