In the never-ending competition for patients, too many practices overlook the value of a strong referral program. While building and sustaining a meaningful referral program requires effort and funding, successfully building top-of-mind relationships with your fellow medical professionals can result in a regular and substantial increase in access to prequalified patients.

How many physicians refer to you? What are their specialties and the number they refer? Do you believe that a patient referred from another medical professional is potentially easier to convert? Just being able to answer these questions could increase referrals by hundreds. To achieve and maintain a high number of referring physicians, practices should create a proactive referral program that sustains relationships with current physicians and creates partnerships with new doctors.

Practices with referring physician databases diligently capture pertinent information, including the practice, contact name, specialty, and the annual number of referrals. This information provides the impetus behind a proactive program to maintain the referring base. Proactive practices also have lists targeting additional sources by potential, specialty, and location, which they use to increase the existing referral base.

Steps for a Successful Referral Program

Practices that do not have a functional or active professional referral program should take the following steps to start a meaningful program:

1. List all potential sources for referrals. Run a report from the practice management software to determine the annual number of referrals and their sources and list all other practices nearby that are not referring patients.

2. Rank the present referring physician list from fewest to most referrals. Because a practice wants a broad spectrum of referring physician specialties, it is important to understand that not every specialty will refer the same number of patients. Referral numbers will be based on the specialty and the number of office visits. The goal is to maintain or increase patient referrals from every source.

3. Analyze the local marketplace and make a list of physicians or organizations not on the referral list. Determine which physicians, practices, or locations are not referring. Create a list of the following physicians, medical groups, or organizations in the practice's area of influence:

• Physicians with specialties that often refer: primary care, internal medicine, and OB/GYN.
• Large group practices that include some or all of the specialties above.
• Friends/acquaintances who are also physicians.
• Multi-physician practices where known colleagues work.
• Locations of hospitals and areas highly populated with medical offices.
• Any new physicians in the area.

4. Identify each practice by location, and rank both lists by potential referrals, including such criteria as proximity and current relationships with other members of the practice staff.

Managing Relationships

The practice now must make a decision: How much time and effort to allocate to developing and maintaining relationships with physicians in the area. Say that a hypothetical practice has 12 referring physicians providing a large number of referrals; does the physician make contact with one of the referring physicians every month or send a staff member to interact with them? A recommendation is to spend time converting large referring physicians or practices while staff members perform the majority of the maintenance and creation of new physician referrals.

Involvement with a potentially important strategic target might be a one-on-one meeting. For all other physicians and practices, the program likely will feature a visit from an appropriate staff member. It might be possible to pre-empt some of the higherranked referring sources or targets with a physicianto- physician telephone call.

One staff member should undertake management of the program. This person would “champion” the program. These management duties should be part of an official job description within the practice.

Personnel making visits to established or potential referring physicians should be well-informed and well-prepared. They must be able to discuss all procedures and services that the practice provides. They should be professional, confident, and have a personality that fits the task. When visiting these physicians' offices, your practice representative must understand that it is a professional call: The intent is to speak to the physician or the practice administrator.

Tracking is critical to the success of a referral program. The program's manager should list all established or targeted physicians in separate spreadsheets containing the columns below:
• Practice name, specialty, address
• Name and e-mail of physician(s)
• Name and e-mail of practice administrator
• Name and e-mail of key contacts
• Last visit date
• Next visit date
• Comments

The staff member's visit is a professional call to establish a relationship with the practice and to differentiate and “promote” your practice. Visits to established and highly ranked targets should be by appointment, with the physician or the practice administrator. These visits should occur on a regular basis to maintain a relationship. When working a specific area, visit other offices of opportunity in the same building or complex. Obtain the e-mail addresses of the practice managers, and create a database of e-mails to correspond with the practices on all events, specials, and newsletters. Ongoing and consistent contact is vital to a dynamic referral program.

“Special” referral events held at your office are another great way to increase contact and educate referring offices about existing and new services. These types of events ultimately result in stronger relationships and allow referring physicians to experience and learn about services and procedures offered at your office. As a result, these sources are more likely to discuss and refer patients to your office.

A Worthwhile Referral

Every top-performing practice has an effective and efficient physician referral program. A robust program can increase revenue significantly while potentially reducing marketing and advertising costs. It is possible to implement such a program in a relatively short time, and it can take as little as an hour per week to manage; the commitment in visits and time is at the discretion of the practice. Building a referral network is a highly efficient and low-cost way to improve access to prequalified patients.

Items to bring to a referring practice

• Business cards
• A menu of services outlining the practice's surgical and nonsurgical procedures
• Documents that credential the practice physician(s) and key staff members
• Some practices provide the practice administrator's direct phone number, identifying it as a hotline. This makes the referring practice understand its importance
• Optional referral forms that facilitate the referring process, including contact information, website address, and an office location map
• Annual calendar of events for the referring providers