By Justin Manning, OD, MPH, FAAO
June 30, 2021
Building a network of healthcare practices you refer to, and which refer to you, can ensure proper care of patients while bolstering your practice. Here are the most important actions to take to grow and strengthen your network.
Gauge Current Strength of Your Referral Network
There are a few ways to determine how strong your referral network is. One way is to track how many formal referrals you receive in a month and from whom. Another way is to ask every patient how they found out about your practice and the reason for their visit. Local providers may not be sending formal referrals, but they may be verbally recommending your practice to their patients.
A wide spectrum of local healthcare providers should be on your list depending on the specialties you offer within your practice: primary care providers (PCPs), urgent care centers, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, optometrists (we don’t refer enough to each other), ophthalmologists, endocrinologists, neurologists, rheumatologists, cardiologists and other specialists managing conditions that impact or involve the eyes.
Beyond allopathic medicine, be sure to include allied and alternative healthcare providers that may be involved in managing conditions your patients have: chiropractors, naturopaths, massage therapists and physical therapists, to name a few. Any local provider who may see a patient with a condition that may have ocular complications needs to be on your list.
Determine The Referrals You Want
Step one is determining what you want to receive referrals for. Are you expanding a specialty contact lens practice or a vision therapy-focused practice? Are you seeking to expand the level of ocular disease you manage, including emergencies? Is low vision your area of expertise? Answering this question will direct you to the providers you need to contact.
Step two, before you start making calls on practices, is to determine your office’s referral policies and procedures. How frequently will you communicate with providers? Will you call all new referring providers the first time they refer a patient (I did this in practice and found it to be incredibly valuable)? If you receive referrals from another optometrist, will you allow the patient to purchase eyewear from you (this should be avoided at all costs if you want to build a referral network of optometrists)? How soon will you be able to schedule these patients, whether they’re comprehensive vision, medical evaluation or urgent care referrals?
Reach Out Yourself to Other Practices If You Can
Trust is one of the most important currencies you can develop. Just as your patients are far more likely to comply with your treatment plans when they trust you, providers are far more likely to refer patients when they trust you. Therefore, the more time you as the doctor can personally devote to building relationships with your referring providers the better.
That said, trust can absolutely be cultivated and managed by an outgoing, friendly team member if you have the right person on your team who communicates well, and whom you can afford to have visit other practices.
If you are trying to meet with a provider’s office that you have no relationship with, it will essentially be a cold call. Try to reach the key decision-maker, whether doctor, owner or practice administrator. Schedule face-to-face time, in-person or virtually. Remember these other doctors’ time is valuable and no one wants to be “sold” on anything, including referrals. Begin by explaining how your practice can solve the problem for them of where to refer patients with eye- and vision-related issues and what that means for their own patient experience.
Leave Detailed Information for the Doctor or Decision-Maker
When visiting an office, leave a referral folder for the owner or practice administrator. Within the folder, include a brief overview of your practice and short bio of the doctor(s) and a list of all the insurances you accept, tailored to the type of provider. If you want to build a referral-based practice, accepting as many health plans as financially responsible is beneficial.
You won’t receive referrals if the referring provider has to spend time determining whether you accept their patient’s insurance. In addition, your referral folder should include a simple referral form with multiple copies and your e-mail and/or fax number at the top. Bonus points awarded if you make it even easier by empowering the referring provider to directly schedule the patient for their consultation while they’re still in the practice.
You should outline your referral policies as well, especially if you’re seeking referrals from other optometrists. Outline how you will guarantee to only provide care for that which the patient was referred and will not sell additional eyewear outside of the realm of the care requested (i.e. you will not sell readers or sunglasses in addition to fitting scleral lenses, for which the patient was referred). If you can’t get face-to-face time with the owner or decision-maker, your referral packet should build as much trust as possible.
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Send Detailed Communications to Referring Doctor Following Patient Visits
It was my philosophy to send letters to PCPs when I saw one of their patients for a comprehensive exam, whether they were referred or not. In those letters, I communicated general outcomes of their exam, future follow-up visits, all the medical care I provided and an invitation to contact me on my personal cell phone at any time if they had questions regarding their patient’s eyecare. If there were complicated medical problems I was actively managing that had direct implication on the patient’s systemic health, I sent ongoing updates about the patient to the relevant providers.
In the case of glaucoma or dry eye disease, I would only send one letter after the patient’s comprehensive exam. In more complex cases, for which I ordered lab work or imaging studies, I made sure the PCP and other specialists were always copied on any results.
The easiest way to connect with another provider is when it revolves around joint care of a mutual patient. Once you’ve discussed the case, take a moment to inform the provider of the services you can provide to more of their patients.
Just as you work to provide educational value to patients (blog posts, social media posts) as part of your method of acquiring new patients, take a similar to approach with other providers in your area. Consider putting on education nights for other providers. If you’re building referral relationships with other optometrists, offer CE and dinner or hors d’oeuvres. Even if they’re not other optometrists, offer an education night for PCPs or specialists around the special tools you use to detect diabetic retinopathy or other ocular conditions they’ll encounter.
I once had a neurologist ask me how to differentiate true papilledema from pseudopapilledema. Consider an education night for neurologists on this topic, discuss your OCT, scan each neurologist, provide them a copy of their optic nerve as a souvenir and take time to review all the services you provide to referred patients that are tied to their specialty.
When hosting these education events, make it as easy as possible for providers to then refer patients to you. If you offer online scheduling, provide each attendee with your scheduling link so they can directly schedule their patients for an evaluation with you when needed.
In addition to hosting your own events for other providers, consider working with another healthcare provider like a PCP, endocrinologist or rheumatologist to tag-team an event that benefits both of your practices.
For building referrals of diabetic patients, HEDIS Scores and Star Ratings are incredibly valuable (especially financially) to a health system, plan and/or PCP. Leverage your education nights to focus on how to improve HEDIS Scores/ Star Ratings and be the hero to these providers by communicating the CPT, CPT II, and ICD-10 codes for all your diabetic exams back to all PCPs, whether referred in or not. This data is incredibly valuable to them and if you can guarantee to the PCP your practice will always provide the data, they’re far more likely to send their patients to you.