With some form of direct access now available in all 50 states, the physical therapy industry has come a long way in the quest to be able to reach patients first. As a result, PTs are now better able to own their role as primary care coordinators for patients with musculoskeletal conditions—and patients are benefiting from more conservative first-line interventions. That said, physician relationships and referrals are still an important piece of the new patient—and thus, new revenue—pie. But the nature of those relationships—and the strategies for generating those referrals—has changed with the times. Catered lunches, pastry boxes, and fruit baskets are no longer enough to garner favor with the town doctor and thus, generate enough new patients to keep you in business. Today, increasing physician referrals requires strategy—and data. So, without further ado, here’s how to build a physician referral network in today’s healthcare landscape:

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Be strategic.

Evaluate potential referrer opportunities based on your ideal patient and payer mix.

In private practice, you’ve got a lot on your plate—and not a lot of time to waste. So, you want to make sure that the resources you invest in referral marketing bring you the best possible returns. This means that instead of reaching out to every physician in your neighborhood, you should first consider whether each one is a good source of the patients you actually want to work with. As WebPT’s Melissa Hughes writes here, “Consider your individual specialty—your niche—and try to establish relationships with physicians who specialize in the same field.”

After all, if your ideal patients are college-aged athletes, it wouldn’t make sense to focus your referral marketing attention on primary care physicians with a high number of Medicare patients. Instead, you’d be better served building relationships with sports medicine doctors and orthopedic surgeons. On the same note, you’ll want to factor in your ideal payer mix when deciding who to develop referral partner relationships with. For example, if you’re a cash-pay practice, then consider focusing your attention on concierge doctors who already work with self-pay patients—or at least providers who are supportive of cash-pay healthcare services.

Focus on building relationships.

Our current era of health care is all about collaboration, which is so much better than competition when it comes to ensuring patients have the best possible care. With that in mind, focus your referral marketing efforts on building mutually beneficial relationships that go beyond transactional quid pro quo. Instead, make meaningful connections with physicians you respect in industries that are complementary to your own. Increased referrals will be a natural result of your efforts.

At last year’s Ascend event, Bruce Watson, PT, MS, CEO and Founder of 47 Consulting Group, LLC, recommended that providers start building relationships with potential referrers by being of value—before ever asking for something in return. That’s a great idea; instead of evaluating potential referrers based solely on what you can get from them, consider what you can give or how you can be of service (hint: that could even include referring a patient to them, assuming it’s in the patient’s best interest). Watson also advised PTs to focus beyond the physicians themselves—and build relationships with everyone on staff, including office managers, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners. And don’t get stuck in the rut of only doing office visits, either. Hughes suggests that by “making yourself present in more unconventional places—in person and online—you might snag the attention of some local physicians and drum up new referral relationships.” Think: health-related events or conferences that intersect your field and theirs.

Become a thought leader.

This is a much less direct referral marketing strategy, but it’s effective all the same. In fact, I would posit that becoming a thought leader in your niche will create a solid foundation for any other strategies you employ. After all, having your positive reputation precede you is a good thing when it comes to winning business from providers and patients alike.

To become a thought leader, you’ve got to establish yourself as an expert in your field—and that requires regularly sharing your expertise on your blog and social media channels as well as at conferences and events. Hughes also suggests seeking out “popular local MD newsletters, websites, or reputable forums.” There, you can share your expertise on the subjects that matter to you—and them—as well as “advocate for physical therapy (and your personal clinic).” Given the national spotlight that is still shining on the opioid crisis, opportunities to sing the praises of conservative first-line interventions for musculoskeletal injuries are plentiful. After all, physicians and legislators are more eager than ever to find alternative options that are safer—and more cost effective—than potentially addictive pain medication.

Arm yourself with data.

Leverage patient loyalty.

A patient’s perception of his or her experience with your practice matters—and it can impact not only that patient, but also his or her network and referrer. After all, it’s highly likely that a displeased patient will complain to the person who provided the referral, and that could be the end of an otherwise strong referral relationship. That’s why it’s crucial to monitor the patient experience—and address issues as promptly as possible. To do that, we recommend using the Net Promoter Score® (NPS®) survey, which tracks patient loyalty. (Traditional satisfaction surveys have a lot of flaws.) It’s incredibly simple to implement—and it’s a very valuable source of actionable data that’ll help you not only improve clinic operations on the whole, but also address patient issues as they arise to prevent early patient dropout.

Plus, because NPS is a nationally recognized metric, you can use your score to market your practice to physicians. What physician wouldn’t prefer to send his or her patients to a PT practice that prioritizes the patient experience—and takes patient feedback into account? (Bonus: WebPT Reach automates the entire NPS process, making it even easier to apply consistently—and to respond to feedback.)

Present outcomes data.

Beyond ensuring that their patients are enjoying their experience with your practice, physicians also want to know that you’re providing exceptional care. And anecdotes just aren’t going to cut it in today’s data-driven world. Instead, use your outcomes data to not only make improvements in your treatment protocols, but also share your awesomeness with potential referral partners. After all, if you can help patients recover from, say, shoulder surgery faster than the national average, then you’ll be a shoe-in for those referrals. As Hughes writes, “At the end of the day, outcomes tracking is evidence-based care, plain and simple—and evidence-based care is a cornerstone of value-based care.” Just remember to tailor your data; you’ll want to present only the information that’s relevant to each physician. For example, as I wrote here, your Oswestry data is probably more appropriate to share with a spine surgeon than a general primary care doctor.

Track the effectiveness of your campaigns.

Some referral marketing strategies are going to work brilliantly—and others, well, won’t. So, be sure to measure the effectiveness of your campaigns and strive for continuous improvement (in terms of both your strategy and what it is you have to offer). That way, you can replicate the efforts that succeed and refine—or ditch—the ones that flop. In addition to tracking the number of patients you get from each referral source—by either asking patients how they heard about you during the first call or on their intake forms—you’ll also want to know the following (adapted from Hughes’s post):

  • The number of active patients you have from each physician referral source;
  • The average number of visits per patient referred from each referral source;
  • How frequently you connect with each referral source (as well as the method used—e.g., phone, email, or in-person); and
  • How many referrals you’ve provided to each referral source over a given time period.


Want to take your referral marketing a step further? You could create individualized landing pages for each referrer to provide to patients. That way, you can market directly to those patients, thus increasing your conversion rate. And with analytics in place, you’ll be able to automatically track the number of unique visitors who land on each page—and compare it with the number of patients who actually make an appointment. To learn more about how to use unique landing pages to improve your physician referral marketing efforts—as well as lots of other great referral marketing strategies—register to attend our next webinar hosted by Watson and WebPT Co-Founder and President Heidi Jannenga, PT, DPT, ATC. Even if you can’t attend, register anyway and we’ll send you a copy of the recording within a week of the live event.

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