Blog Post

The PT's Guide to Building Better Referral Relationships

Building better referral relationships referrals from physicians with this simple guide. Click here to learn more, here.

Melissa Hughes
5 min read
March 20, 2019
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We’re big fans of patient-centered marketing—especially now that all 50 states have direct access laws that allow PTs to, at minimum, evaluate patients without a referral. But that doesn’t mean you should rely entirely on word-of-mouth to bring in new clients. After all, many states have limited direct access laws that prevent PTs from having full control over their patients’ medical journey—and many payers still require some degree of physician involvement in therapy care plans. So, physician referrals—love ’em or hate ’em—aren’t going anywhere, and PTs need to think strategically about how to increase referrals from physicians. And that starts with building better relationships with referring providers.

Traditional referral generation strategies are losing steam.

Not too long ago, PTs were expected to turn out their pockets and buy catered lunches, gift baskets, and the like to “butter up” potential referral sources. But, these delicious reminders aren’t as effective as you might think—especially in this day and age.

If everyone is buying goodies, then no one stands out.

Several years ago, I worked a summer job in the back office of a large-ish family practice. Every single day, the doctors would receive a catered lunch from someone who was hoping to court their attention (whether it was from a drug company or a specialty provider, I never knew). And every day, the doctors would give the whole staff the go-ahead to eat the fancy foodstuff (sometimes, the docs didn’t even touch the food!). My point is, you’re not the only PT who’s thought about courting a provider via belly-fillers. Add in all the other specialty providers and deep-pocketed drug companies you’re competing with, and you’re going to have a tough time winning the food-related perks game.

Value-based care is encouraging physicians to be more selective with their referrals.

With health care’s migration toward value-based care, tasty referral incentives are becoming a thing of the past. While a basket of food might keep your name top-of-mind during lunch, that top-of-mind priority won’t necessarily carry into clinical hours, because physicians are much more interested in the well-being of their patients (and the security of their job) than their tummy grumbles. The best way to get a physician’s attention is to prove that his or her patients will benefit from your care. And the best way to do that? Collect and present patient data.

Data drives the physician referrals of tomorrow—and today.

Collecting patient data (and improving your treatment methods until that data is wholly positive) is the best way for you to demonstrate your value to patients and physicians alike. Whether you’re measuring patient satisfaction levels or the efficacy of your treatment, you can use the data you collect to show anyone why you’re the go-to provider for patients with musculoskeletal injuries.

Outcomes tracking demonstrates the effectiveness of your care.

Outcomes tracking is paramount to demonstrating the quality and effectiveness of your care. Simply put, it shows your patients’ progress throughout their course of care, allowing you to make adjustments to their treatment as necessary. Outcomes tracking also can help you market yourself to potential referring providers. For example, outcomes data can show—on average—how quickly patients undergoing rehab following hip replacement surgery are able to get back to their previous level of daily function. Outcomes can also help reveal your most effective treatment paths, thereby showing you the best way to treat future patients with similar injuries. 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.

NPS® demonstrates how much your patients value your care.

Here at WebPT, we talk a lot about the importance of tracking patient loyalty to (and satisfaction with) your practice via Net Promoter Score® (NPS®). NPS is a single-question satisfaction and loyalty survey that organizes your survey-takers into three categories. These three categories tell you which of your patients are unwaveringly loyal, which are happy (but not completely sold on your services), and which are unhappy. If you have a good NPS score, that means your patients are generally very happy with your services—which probably means you’re doing a good job. You can always share this information with physicians to prove just how valuable your treatment is to your patients.

You can also leverage your NPS data to improve several different aspects of your services. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this founder letter.

Targeting specific providers can help you unlock serious referral potential.

Honing your focus and being deliberate about where (and how) you accrue referrals could boost your referral generation success. Consider your individual specialty—your niche—and try to establish relationships with physicians who specialize in the same field. This is an exaggerated example, but if you wanted to see more geriatric patients, soliciting referrals from pediatricians would be the wrong way to go. But reaching out to a local physician who specializes in elder care—that might get you somewhere.

Strategic networking can help you connect with physicians who would have otherwise slipped under the radar.

It’s easy to forget, but physicians do exist outside of their clinics. If you starting 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. To do that, start by brainstorming unique opportunities to get your name (and your clinic’s name) in front of potential referral sources.

In-Person Networking

Keep an eye out for any health-related events that are happening in your area. Then, attend and mingle your heart out. For example, you could go to a health fair and speak with hospital and surgical practice representatives (and maybe even set up a booth). Or, you could participate in a fundraising event for cancer, or for another illness that results in musculoskeletal degeneration. Maybe—if you’re willing to spend the money—you could even become an exhibitor at a conference for physicians, or at an educational event like the Mayo Clinic’s Clinical Reviews.

Online Networking

Do some research and determine what your ideal providers are reading online. Are there any popular MD-specific blogs that post content related to your PT niche? Is there a way for you to become a blog contributor? What about physician-oriented magazines? Can you share your musculoskeletal expertise with these publications? You could also look around for popular local MD newsletters, websites, or reputable forums, and find a way to advocate for physical therapy (and your personal clinic).

Networking via Referral

Finally, you can always try to generate a relationship with a physician by sending him or her a patient first. Direct access laws give you the power to make the first move, and sending patients to physicians (when appropriate) can be a great way to catch their attention and curry their favor.

Tracking your referral campaigns is the key to maintaining healthy referral relationships.

The most important part of a referral campaign (or an outreach campaign to establish good relationships with other providers) is the data you collect along the way. It’s invaluable to know where your patients are coming from—whether they find you through a quick Google search, a friend of a friend, or a friendly physician. But beyond that, it’s important to track the specific details about your physician referrals, and your relationships with different providers.

Referral tracking can help you maintain good relationships with physicians—and subsequently, a strong referral flow.

Let’s say you establish a good relationship with the infamously cranky Dr. Gregory House. (Congratulations, you must be one heck of a PT!) He starts sending you a steady stream of patients who are having trouble becoming ambulatory after they undergo knee replacement surgery. Your patients’ outcomes are looking good, Dr. House keeps sending you patients, and you feel like you have a healthy, professional relationship—until you start tracking your physician referrals. Suddenly, you realize that Dr. House has halved his referrals over the last four months. Upon digging into your records further, you realize that you haven’t touched base with him in four months (ah, that makes sense!), and you haven’t referred a patient back to him in a little over two months. With this information, you can revive your relationship with Dr. House, and ensure that your referral stream keeps on flowin’.

Tracking referrals isn’t as difficult as you might think.

Tracking physician referrals is less complicated than you might think. If you want to keep things simple, you could create a spreadsheet—or even start with a small file of hand-written notes. Just be sure that your notes cover:

  • How many active patients you have from each physician referral source;
  • The last time you reached out to each referral source to touch base;
  • The method you used to touch base with your referral sources (e.g., by phone, over email, in person);
  • How often you—when medically appropriate—refer patients back to referring physicians; and
  • The frequency of referrals you receive from each physician referral source.

If you’re already strapped for time and don’t think you can fit any more data tracking into your day, you (luckily) don’t have to manually track this information. There are technology solutions out there that can help you manage all of this physician referral information. Just be sure to research which referral management program is right for your practice, from features to pricing.

How do you maintain your relationships with referring providers? Have you discovered a referral relationship management method that works better than others? Comment below, and share your experiences!


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