Grow Your Patient Base–with an Effective Referral System

By Brooke S. Kaplan, OD

Nov. 11, 2015


Referrals are the lifeblood of a healthy practice–but referrals only happen if you have an effective system to generate, track and growthem consistently.


MONITOR. Input patients who refer into PM or EHR system and track them.

REWARD. Thank patients who refer, and also new referrals, with a gift card with discounts.

ENGAGE. Motivate staff to suggest referrals when patients have positive experiences in your office.

The person-to-person testimony of the strength of your services and products is one of the best ways to grow your practice. In my 15-location practice, we have implemented a careful tracking system to understand the pattern of our referrals from patients, and to encourage more patients to do the same. Approximately 40 percent of our current patients were referred to our practice by another patient.

Components of a Referral System

Our high referralrates are due to a systematic tracking system, gift cards to reward those who refer, as well as those who come in via a referral, and a staff training program that gets staff on board with the why and how of referrals. Further, we promote referrals with events and a social media campaign. You need a system if you’re going to build your referrals and sustain a practice.

Editor’s Note: Not all states permit rewarding patients with money or gifts for referrals. However, thank-you notes are permitted in all states. Check with your state optometric board for further guidance.

The Gift of Vision card is given to patients after a comprehensive exam so they cangive it to others they wish to refer. The new patient receives $20 off their exam or products sold in the office. The referring patient also gets a $20 gift card as a thank you from the practice.

Systematically Monitor & Thank Referring Patients

We take an active role in monitoring how patients find out about our office, and have a process to track referrals from patients in our practice management system. We were unsure of referral rates before beginning this tracking system a few years ago, but our referral rates have steadily increased every year since tracking.

Our clinicians ask every new patient in the pre-testing how they were referred. It is then documented in their file. If they mention a patient by name, we send the referring patient a thank you note and a $20 gift certificate for use at their next exam.

Patients with particularly difficult cases that went well refer heavily, but the most common referral is the patient who had a bad experience elsewhere, and was struck by how much better the experience was at our practice. You get one chance to win that kind of patient to your practice, and if you succeed, all of the friends and family that heard about their negative experience at their former eye doctor’s office are going to hear about the contrasting, positive experience your office provided.

Give “Gift of Vision”

In our practice, every patient seen for a comprehensive eye exam receives a “Gift of Vision” card at checkout. The certificate includes a listing of our 15 locations, and a $20 credit, which the new patient referred to us can apply to any product or service purchased in our office.The new patient brings in the card to receive $20 off exam or materials. The card also ensures that we know who the referring patient is, as it includes a line for the giver of the card to fill out with their name. The card is also available on our web site to be printed out by a patient who would like to refer another person.

Our referral rates have significantly increased since having a small incentive to bring people through the door, but the incentive only does that. We pride ourselves on offering a five-star experience both in medical experience and optical, and it’s up to us to deliver in order make the new referral a patient for life.

The cost of offering new patients $20 dollars off on exams and materials is fractional compared to the long-term gain in new patients seeing us annually for their eye exams for years to come. These patients seem more likely to purchase more materials based on the savings they are receiving, such as opting for a second-pair of glasses, or a year supply of contact lenses instead of a six-month supply.

Train Staff to Encourage Referrals

Anytime a patient mentions how happy they are with our patient care in any area of our offices, our staff encourages them to tell their friends and family. We know our best marketing is by patient word of mouth. For instance, our staff might say: “I’m so glad you were happy with your visit to our office, Emily. Please let your friends and family know how happy you were with your experience here. We would love the chance to serve them, too.”

A Facebook post about a charity event sponsored by Dr. Kaplan’s 15-location Alabama practice, Schaeffer Eye Center. Dr. Kaplan says such events generate interest in the practice, including referrals from existing patients.

Host Events to Spur Referrals

We host and sponsor events all over the city, both to give back to the community, as well as to encourage referrals. From music festivals to community and athletic events, all of which benefit charities, we support the communities that we serve. We are not just in the business of seeing; we want our patients to know we appreciate them and return the support they give to us.

Use Social Media to Generate Referrals

Social media is a very powerful tool in generating referrals, and not just through online reviews like Yelp. Our Facebook and Instagram pages are extremely active with posts of what is happening in our practice and the community at large. Friends of our patients sometimes see our posts, and their friends’ responses to our posts, on their own Facebook news feeds, which then makes them aware of our practice, and sometimes results in another new patient for us.

Related ROB Articles

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Five Ways to Ensure that Patients Return

Generate Unique Marketing Messages with a Creative Team

Brooke S. Kaplan, OD, is a staff optometrist at Schaeffer Eye Center, a 15-location multi-disciplinary practice in Alabama founded by her father, Jack Schaeffer, OD. She earned a B.S. in genetics from the University of Georgia and is a graduate of the School of Optometry at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. To contact her:

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