By Susan Resnick, OD, FAAO, FSLS
Jan. 27, 2021
Referrals are the cornerstone of any service business. While patient referrals should be your primary source of new business, it’s equally important to gain new patients from other health-care professionals.
Depending on your practice focus, your interdisciplinary network most likely includes cataract and refractive surgeons, retinal specialists, oculoplastic surgeons, corneal surgeons, pediatric ophthalmologists, opticians and internists. Furthermore, critical to our advancement as a well-respected primary- and specialty-care profession as whole, is our willful movement to increase cross-referrals within our own optometric community.
Our practice, born over 60 years ago as a practice limited to contact lenses, has always, and continues to be, dependent on close referral relationships to survive and grow. With the expansion of scope-of-practice privileges, we no longer limit our services solely to contact lenses. However, we continue to employ the same tried-and-true approach to developing and strengthening our professional referral base that has proven successful over the decades. Here are our methods for identifying, recruiting and fostering a clinically and financially rewarding professional referral network.
Targeting Your Referral Base
Your mode of practice and areas of clinical interest are the basis for determining which health-care providers will be most relevant and important to your referral network. For example, if you are a solo practitioner with a specific sub-specialty, you will have a narrower focus than if you are in a group practice offering a broad range of eyecare services. In either case, however, it is best at first not to limit your geographic outreach. Cast a wide net if you are in the early stages of developing your network. This is especially important if you offer specialized services such as low vision, medically necessary contact lenses and ocular surface management. You will be pleasantly surprised to discover that patients’ needs motivate them to travel greater distances than they would for “ordinary” services.
In our practice, we refer to “hitting the pavement” to get in front of potential referral sources as canvassing. When I started as a new associate I was charged with the mission of “growing my own practice,” and was taught how to do this by the senior partners who had done the same when they were starting out. My current partner and I have now handed the canvassing reins to our young associates.
Having established a target list of potential referral sources, you can either call in advance to set up a short introductory appointment or “cold call” by dropping in. It is best if you can do the former, but it is not always possible. Many times, you will be politely denied access. But do not be discouraged or dissuaded. Have a staff member call ahead to find out what days and hours the doctor is in and make a surprise visit. Explain that you “happen to be in the area,” and just wanted to introduce yourself to Dr. Smith because you would like to refer a patient. If you are still denied access, ask to speak briefly with the office manager and ask questions about the doctor’s hours, hospital affiliations and willingness and availability to accept new patients. Learn the best protocol for scheduling new patients needing urgent consultation. Ask for the manager’s direct number.
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The next step in either scenario is to send a follow-up letter thanking the doctor or office manager for their time, or asking if there is a time when you can meet in-person. Your scripting, both verbal and written, should always emphasize that your intent is to get to know more about the doctor and their practice. If you have been successful in meeting with the doctor in-person, your follow-up letter can then include your printed practice materials and business cards. Include an easy-to-complete, pre-printed tear-off pad on which the referring practitioner can check off the reason for the referral, as well as add a few pertinent notes regarding the patient’s history and condition.
Strengthening the Bonds
Professional relationships are no different than other long-term, meaningful relationships: to be successful they must be continually nourished and cultivated. Recommendations for achieving this include:
1. A letter of acknowledgment and gratitude for the referral of each new patient
2. A letter of introduction for each patient you are referring
3. A follow-up report at appropriate intervals
4. Without fail, ensuring the patient return to the referring clinician for all other services
5. An annual visit (if possible while dining out) with both the referring provider, his/her manager and your manager to update one another on practice services, referral protocols, goals, etc.
6. Holiday gift basket to referring provider’s staff
7. Holiday gift donation to the referring clinician’s charity of choice
The process of developing a successful inter-referral network requires consistency of approach and effort, dedication and patience. Success is not necessarily measured by the breadth of referral sources, but, rather, the depth.
For instance, consider the addition of 1-2 new referrers annually, each referring 6-8 new patients. The potential is for 16 new patients per year, equivalent to four new referrers each referring four new patients per year. Add to that the secondary referrals of friends and family, and you will benefit from geometric growth. As always, focus on providing exceptional patient care and personalized attention because, in the end, that is what your referrers are counting on.