When a specialty practice is seeking to grow its market share; developing, maintaining and tracking referral relationships should be the top priority. Specialty practices need to understand that building referral relationships is a consultative process. Every PCP practice has its own approach for making referrals that can involve any number of individuals within the practice to include the doctors, nurses and the administrative staff. It is not uncommon for practices to have a referral coordinator. If a specialty practice wants to successfully persuade PCPs to refer, the specialty practice should be familiar with each PCP's referral process as well as their priorities when referring. The most common criteria for referring to a specialist are:
• Ease of access
• Clinical competence
• Advanced / fellowship training
• Innovative treatment options
• Satisfying patient experience
• Communication about treatments for referred patients.
The specialist needs to know a referring a physician's process for making referrals, their priorities when choosing a specialty provider and meet those respective needs. However, too few specialty practices understand this consultative process. It is common for specialty practices to struggle with understanding the process of building referral relationships. In most cases, practices wish to increase market share and therefore engage in “marketing activities” such as advertising, brochure and website development and newsletter distribution. While these mediums can portray a positive image regarding the specialty practice, they do not complete the consultative loop that is necessary to build referral relationships. The consultative loop being: understanding a PCP's referral process, knowing the people involved in the process, their motivations for referring and then responding accordingly. Marketing activities can be an important part of a referral marketing program, however, they are supporting elements. Building referral relationships calls for constant feedback to ensure the PCP's needs are met. Marketing pieces and advertising alone cannot accomplish this. To effectively increase market share, specialty practices need to shift from "marketing activities" to engaging in the consultative process of building referral relationships.
In consulting with specialty practices looking to increase their market share, the most frequent mistakes seen are:
1. Ignoring the raw data. Many practices assess referrals intuitively. Actual data often shows a practice's referral patterns are very different than expected. Knowing who the top, middle and non-referring practices are before embarking a referral development program is a critical starting point to effectively growing referral relationships. Without this knowledge, practices are guessing where efforts should be applied which can be costly, ineffective and occasionally damaging to the practice.
2. Creating a marketing position without a proper job description. Many times a practice will hire someone to "market their practice," and that is the extent of the job description. Many practices that directly hire a marketing person end up frustrated because that person spends a lot of time revamping the website, writing newsletters and engaging existing patients rather than attracting new ones. These activities alone do not build referral relationships and therefore typically don't grow practices leaving everyone dissatisfied. Practices need to provide a specific job description that specifically outlines the responsibilities and activities that directly affect referral relationships.
3. Appointing someone from the current staff as the "face of their practice." It is natural to select someone who knows your practice inside and out to go represent it to referral sources. However, even if this person has great interpersonal skills, the likelihood is that their primary skill set is providing patient care. The consultative process of building referral relationships is different. Placing an individual in a position without proper skills is rarely effective.
4. Investing in "do it yourself" programs. There are many programs and consultants selling programs that purport to address what practices are trying to accomplish. While these programs are potentially effective, most practices do not have the time or resources to implement them properly. Before investing in one of these programs, practices should honestly assess the time and personnel needed for implementation prior to making a commitment.
5. Creating a brand and develop new marketing materials. These can be expensive to develop and unless used properly are not effective in generating referrals. The mistake most practices make is believing the brand and the marketing materials are the whole of the referral building process. Remember, they play an important role, however, do not complete the consultative loop that is building referral relationships.
In consulting with specialty practices who wish to grow their referral network, we have discovered there are required steps to be effective. The first is to fully understand the referral network as it currently operates. Use the data sources available to assess the current state. This is the best way to determine which PCP practices are best positioned to send more referrals. Sometimes what this data does not contain is as important as what it does. Are there potential referral sources that are not represented at all in the current network? The second important step is to understand each PCP's motivation for referring to a specialty practice as well as why they are not referring. This requires knowing each office individually, specifically understanding the referral process and knowing which staff members are responsible for referral decisions.
Professional liaisons are skilled at the consultative process that is building referral relationships. They know how to navigate PCP practices and ask questions to acquire feedback. Feedback is the essential ingredient to specialty practices that want to best position themselves for referrals. If specialty practices can document the needs of the primary care network and communicate they can deliver and execute accordingly, there is no more effective way to cultivate referral relationships. Practices that are successful at this also understand it is a continual process. As relationships develop it is imperative to constantly review the referral data and either problem-solve or reinforce the effective strategies. Building referral relationships is a continuous and dynamic process. A specialty practice's message must change accordingly. We find that practices that engage in this process are successful in increasing their referral network by an average of 10 percent, and in many cases, more. Consider what these types of increases would mean to a specialty practice.
Meg Yezzi is the Vice President of Marketing for Medical Referral Solutions. Medical Referral Solutions specializes in growing referral networks by providing professional, ethical, representation for specialty medical practices and centers.
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In today's healthcare market, physicians are more challenged than ever to increase market share, volumes, patient referrals and profitability. With challenges such as the decline in cash patients and decreasing reimbursement while trying to provide the best possible care for patients, a physician's time is exhausted. While focusing on patient care, it is almost impossible for physicians to market themselves effectively. However, if a practice desires to grow and increase profitability, this is exactly what is needed. In a study published by the Center for Studying Health System Change, it was reported that almost 70 percent of patients chose a specialist because of their primary care physician's referral, followed by almost 20 percent based on a friend or relative's recommendation. Advertising through a variety of mediums (books, magazines, television and radio) accounted for less than 4 percent of referrals into a specialist's office. This study makes it clear that referral relationships are the most valuable asset to a specialty medical practice.
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