Referral Sources Part II: Patient Referrals

Jump in as we continue a series of articles about key referral sources and how to reach them.

Patient referrals

In today's environment, referrals from past and current patients are some of the most powerful referrals a practice can ask for. Good outcomes and happy patients are obvious keys to encouraging patient referrals, but those alone don't guarantee that a patient will refer friends and family to your practice. Here we discuss how to develop patients into ambassadors for your practice.

The power of "word-of-mouth" marketing

In previous posts, we have discussed that many patients are inherently wary of physician referrals. However, if their brother's neighbor's friend's dog-walker recommends a particular physician, they are likely to heed the referral. Why? Because patients are suspicious of the healthcare system (especially pieces that they don't fully understand), but trusting of their personal network. Tapping into that personal network can be very beneficial for your practice. Here's how to do it.

1. Happy patients, happy practice. I know, I know...it's not possible to have 100% improvement in every situation. There will be patients that can't benefit from surgery, patients that are unhappy you won't operate on them, patients that refuse to lose weight, or stop smoking, or whatever the case may be. But continually go out of your way to explain the situation, educate your patients, and tune into how your patients are feeling - emotionally. 

2. Keep your practice top of mind. In the best cases, patients resume their lifestyles and their previous discomfort fades from memory. So when their colleague mentions he or she is having a similar problem, they may be less likely to dig up your contact information and pass it along. Consistent communication with patients can refresh their memories. My favorite way to do this is via e-newsletter. Collect email addresses from your patients at registration and send a quarterly newsletter with interesting medical news, case studies, practice changes, and so forth. Not only does this keep your practice top of mind, it also provides an easy way for patients to refer: if they come across an interesting article, they merely have to hit "send" to forward to a friend. (Note: I would be remiss to leave out the importance of social media here. Check out my previous post for my thoughts on Facebook applications for healthcare.)

3. Put patients in the spotlight. When you have a "home run" case, ask that patient if she would like to use her experience to help other patients. Many patients jump at the chance to share their story. I like to write up a patient experience and include before and after images in each aforementioned e-newsletter. You can also use case studies on your website, in printed brochures, and in advertising campaigns (I especially like advertorials, which are sponsored pieces that are written like an editorial article). Some practices are surprised to find how cost-effective video production can be. Interview patients, include before and after pictures or video, and post on your own YouTube channel.  Lastly, consider having a list of "patient ambassadors" that new patients can contact to candidly discuss their concerns. 

Physician Referrals and Patient Compliance

Continuing a series of articles about key referral sources and how to reach them...

Physician referrals (Continued)

This first referral source may seem a bit obvious - we all know that primary care physicians refer patients to a specialist when necessary. What is less obvious, however, is how physicians select the surgeons and practices to which they refer. Even less obvious is understanding how physicians decide which patients to refer for surgical assessment, and when. And finally, when a patient is referred to a surgeon, does he or she comply? Why or why not?

Today, we'll answer the final question on physician referrals: when a patient is referred to a surgeon, does he or she comply? Why or why not?

Studies have shown that up to 1/2 of patients are non-compliant when it comes to following their doctor's instructions, and visiting a surgeon is really no different than filling that prescription. It's safe to assume that for every 3 patients referred to your clinic, 1 opts out. But why?

We could spend days discussing patients' objections to seeking treatment from a specialist; I won't pretend that this blog post is exhaustive. However, here are a handful of objections that we actually have the power to impact.

1. Lack of knowledge about the condition and available treatment options. To some, the act of visiting a surgical practice is the same as signing him or herself up to undergo massive surgery. He or she may be unaware of less invasive or non-surgical options, and may wait and wait until symptoms are unbearable before seeking treatment.

2. Suspicion regarding PCP's reasons for referral. I'll admit it. This is me. If my physician refers me to a specialist, I don't blindly call up that particular doc and make an appointment. Rather, I'll get online and do some research to find a specialist that seems highly qualified. There was one exception to this rule, however. My son's pediatrician referred us to an asthma/allergy specialist. Our pediatrician explained to me that he preferred this particular specialist because he has a great deal of experience with kids, and is phenomenal at communicating with the referring physician, making it easier for the pediatrician to effectively manage the patient's care. This helped me to understand the referral (and trust that it wasn't just his med school buddy) and we complied.

3. Patient's choice to visit a different surgeon. Similar to #2, this patient is well-informed. He or she may choose to research specialists online, and may opt to visit a different surgeon based on his areas of specialty, website and reputation. We see this commonly with surgeons who perform minimally invasive surgery - in spite of a referral to another surgeon, patients may seek out a surgeon who performs what they perceive as "cutting edge" procedures.