Blog Post

The 3 Stages of Building Referral Relationships that Last

Want to create fruitful referral relationships that stand the test of time? Here's how to build connections with other caregivers.

Melissa Hughes
5 min read
February 3, 2020
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If you’re an outpatient PT, you need to have strong relationships with referring physicians—whether you like it or not. Creating solid relationships with MDs brings a lot of benefits to the table. For example, physicians can help you:

  • get POC signatures when you’re in a bind;
  • improve outcomes (excellent care coordination is powerful medicine—pun intended); and
  • maintain a steady stream of patient referrals to your clinic.

We’re obviously huge proponents of direct access and direct patient marketing, but we can’t deny the importance of good referral relationship. 

But, a tepid referral relationship isn’t going to cut it. To make your referral relationships work for you, you have to put in the work (i.e., communicate regularly and continually build rapport). Remember, good referral relationships don’t pop out of the ground like daisies—and they, like any other relationship in life, require attention and care. With that in mind, let’s talk about the three stages of building lasting referral relationships. 

1. Stage One: Making a Good First Impression

As with any relationship, first impressions are key. Some people even say that the first impression is the last impression—and when you’re courting physicians who have countless other specialists seeking their attention, this is doubly true. 

Do your homework. 

The best first impression in the world won’t mean a thing if you and your referral source aren’t a good fit. For example, a sports PT will have a heck of a time soliciting referrals from a physician who mostly treats elderly patients.

Before you reach out, check out the practice’s marketing to get an idea about the patients and audience it serves. Along those same lines, make sure your potential referral source accepts at least some of the same payers that you do. 

This is also when you should identify your referral gatekeepers. Nowadays, doctors are so busy that their clinics often employ full-time liaisons who manage referrals. So, it’s totally possible that you need to focus first on impressing the liaison—not the physician him- or herself. 

Make a patient-centric pitch. 

Once you zero in on your target—that is, once you find a physician who might be a good referral fit—you need to prove that your care will benefit that physician’s patients. Have your outcomes and NPS® data on hand so you can show how patients measurably improve when they come to see you. 

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that some physicians may consider other factors when assessing potential referral partners. That’s why Healthcare Success recommends simply cutting to the chase and asking: ‘What’s most important to you regarding how we take care of your patient?” This demonstrates that you really care about this physician’s patients, and it helps make sure that you’re both on the same page with respect to overall goals. 

Have a human touch. 

At the end of the day, physicians are people, too. (I know—wild, right?) Data is a crucial piece of the referral relationship-building process, but having a warm conversation with a physician will go a long way, too. Remember, you’re probably not the only provider who’s trying to get referrals from any given physician, and you don’t want to get lost in the shuffle. 

2. Stage Two: Building Trust

Okay, you’ve made a good first impression, which means you’ve laid the foundation for a good referral relationship. Now, you have to build up the rest of the house. 

Hopefully, by this point, the physician has sent a patient or two over to your practice. This is when you get to do what you do best: heal patients through movement. As you provide excellent care to these patients, make sure you continue recording data like outcomes scores and NPS. Additionally, ensure your documentation thoroughly explains the progress and results these patients achieve under your care. 

Close the loop. 

Your work is not done once you receive referrals from a physician. In fact, this is where many referral relationships turn sour. Providers assume that, because the physician is giving referrals, everything is hunky-dory, and they can just continue treating like normal while simultaneously receiving a never-ending stream of patients from a physician they never talk to. 

That’s not the case. If you want to build rapport and trust with a referring provider, you have to close the communication loop and give him or her meaningful information (like the aforementioned outcomes and NPS data) that affirms his or her decision to send patients to your practice. And you can’t stop doing this after one or two patients. You’ll want to continue conducting periodic outreach to help bolster your relationship with the referral source and reinforce the value you’re providing his or her patients. 

3. Stage Three: Maintaining Connections 

The third and final macro stage of building time-tested referral relationships is to maintain those relationships. I touched on this a little bit in the previous section, but it’s very important that you keep yourself top-of-mind. This article from Dignity Health recommends sending information to your referral sources whenever you add to or otherwise change your service offerings. This source even recommends reaching out with a phone call or an email on occasion—or maybe even to arrange a lunch appointment: “The rule is to just keep the communication channels open!”

Monitor your relationships.

Of course, doing all of this relationship management by hand is tough for therapists who are already swamped with high patient loads and tedious documentation requirements. Luckily, there are plenty of referral relationship management solutions out there to help therapists manage this process by keeping tabs on things like:

  • Active referrals, 
  • Referral source contact frequency, and 
  • Revenue by referral source.

Check out some of the options available from Software Advice.

Building strong, long-lasting referral relationships is an art. It’s one part data, two parts good connection, and ten parts social finesse. Basically, it’s hard to do—but it’s an important part of helping your clinic stay financially viable. What referral relationship approaches do you think work best? Feel free to drop a comment below and share your expertise!


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