By Kyle Bolton, AuntMinnie.com contributing writer

November 18, 2015 -- Referrals are the lifeblood of every successful private radiology center. But how does a center gain referrals and then keep them?

Clinical competence is a good start, but in today's competitive marketplace, physicians are looking for more from centers: They want relationships with professionals they know, like, and trust. And more than just pleasing physicians, the centers need to make their patients happy, because physicians are competing for business, too, and every referral they make reflects directly back on them.

The key, in the end, is relationships: developing and maintaining strong relationships with physicians in your area. But relationships don't just build themselves. When your marketing efforts succeed and a physician refers the first patient to your center, you may think you can just sit back and relax, but this is when the real work begins! How you treat the referring physician and his or her patient over the next few hours, days, weeks, and months will have a big impact on whether the person refers again.

Let's take a look at 10 ways you can build stronger relationships with new and existing physicians to help grow your referral base.

1. Make the referral process easy

First impressions are everything, and referring physicians get their first impression of your clinic when they go to make the referral. If they or their staff call and are immediately put on hold, or if they are told that you do not accept their preferred method of referral (email, phone, fax, or mail), that first impression will be colored by frustration. They'll likely think twice before referring to you again, or even worse: They might simply take their business elsewhere. If you want to keep referring physicians happy, make it simple for them to send you new patients.

2. Keep timely appointments

Physicians hate to have their patients' care delayed, so radiology centers must remain flexible and be able to accommodate patients' schedules to stay competitive. Keeping physicians and patients updated about waiting times is a big step forward in creating a positive bond. Simple text message alerts about waiting times, or having the receptionist make a cup of coffee or tea for a patient while he or she waits, can go a very long way in keeping everyone happy.

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate

When physicians refer to an outpatient imaging center, they can feel a loss of control over their patient's care. Once they send the referral, they are left wondering, "Did the fax go through?" "Has the appointment been made?" "Did the patient show up?" Preemptively answering those questions (and more) can go a long way toward easing physicians' minds. Then, keeping the lines of communication open between your center, the physician, and the patient will ensure that everyone stays fully informed throughout the treatment process.

In the case of an urgent referral, have your office let the physician know when the appointment has been made. If you are unable to contact the patient, be sure to let the physician know so that he or she can manage the patient's care accordingly. Also, when patients cancel or when they promise to rebook, they often never return, so it is important to keep the referring physician informed as to whether the appointment has been made (and kept) or not.

Another valuable communication practice is to offer access to your medical team. Making your radiologists available to answer physician and patient questions is a great way to build relationships, and doing so will improve the quality of care the patient receives, as the radiologist can then help guide the physician with follow-up care.

4. Keep report turnaround times short

The importance of report turnaround times might seem obvious, but providing timely and prompt diagnostic reports cannot be emphasized enough. Have you considered the average time it takes from when you receive a referral to the time you schedule the appointment and send the results back to the physician? This key performance indicator can serve as a great benchmark of how your center is doing.

5. Offer pricing transparency

Being transparent about your pricing and what insurance you accept makes the referral process easier and builds trust with physicians and their patients. Patients are increasingly being asked to shoulder more of the burden of their own healthcare costs. Your center can get ahead of the curve by clearly displaying your pricing structure. If you do so and a competing center does not, you'll already have an advantage just by saving patients the time and hassle of hunting down that information. Physicians may also send a patient somewhere based on that patient's health insurance, so it's always better to be upfront; you don't want them to find out halfway through the referral process that a problem exists.

6. Implement relationship management systems

Relationship building is a process, not a one-off event. By systematically staying in touch with your referral base, you'll build stronger relationships. When physicians refer their first patient to you, it's a nice touch to send them a welcome package -- a short handwritten thank you letter and some nice branded pens are enough to welcome a new referring physician. After that initial gesture, make it a priority to stay front-of-mind with that physician by creating an ongoing communication program. The purpose of this is not to blatantly advertise your center, but to become a thought leader; you want to be seen as the trusted source of information in your area, as well as to educate physicians about how you can help them and how they can best use radiology services to improve patient care. Case studies are one simple and effective way to do this.

7. Please the gatekeepers

Don't underestimate the influence that a physician's receptionist or staff can have on the referral process. Physicians may provide a list of "approved diagnostic imaging providers" to patients, but their staff members are often the ones who point out specific providers on the list who they believe are best. It is important to gain the trust of these staff members by always being polite and appreciative of the role they play in the referral process. Remember: They are the gatekeepers. They can complain to their boss or the referring physician about your center, or steer patients to other service providers on the approved list -- sometimes after just one negative interaction!

8. Hire a physician's liaison

By hiring or appointing a specific staff member as your referring physician's liaison, you can give your center that personal touch that is so important to building relationships. People like to work with "a face they remember," so by providing one consistent point of contact, you are enabling physicians and their staff to develop a trusting relationship with your center through this one individual. Creating this role also gives you a representative who can visit physicians during regular business hours, host open house events, and attend medical society conferences to represent your facility.

9. Create a continuous feedback loop

Listen intently to all of the input from your referring physicians, and ask for feedback. Find out what is most important to them regarding how your facility takes care of its patients, and then deliver what they want (and more). Sometimes, simply asking how you can help them can exceed their expectations and automatically gain their favor and the potential for more referrals.

You can solicit feedback from referring physicians at many stages throughout the process of treating their patients, but the key is to make the process as easy as possible. One way is to mail them a simple feedback card with prepaid postage. You can send these to referring physicians at virtually any time, which can double as a way to keep your practice front-of-mind. Another option is to provide a link at the bottom of patient reports to a feedback page on your website (you can view a sample page on our site by clicking here). Don't overcomplicate it -- a few questions will suffice. Remember, these are busy people. While you want them to know that their feedback is important, you need to respect their time, too!

10. The best offense is good defense

It's easier to get referrals from existing physicians than it is to get a referral from a new physician. If you look at the source of your referrals, you'll probably notice that 80% come from 20% of your total base. These numbers mean that you need to protect those key referral sources by keeping them happy and letting them know how much they are valued. Small gestures can add up, so reward them with handwritten greeting cards or other small gifts on holidays, when appropriate.

Conclusion

To be truly effective in building relationships with referring physicians, it is important to play the long game. We won't always be able to calculate the exact return on investment of something like a genuine handwritten letter, but it's important to integrate these tactics into a strategy, aligned with concrete goals for your practice.

Do you plan to grow referrals by 15% this year? Or increase the satisfaction of your current referring physicians? In either case, it is essential to build stronger relationship to move you toward your goal.

These tactics just scratch the surface of building relationships, but if you are proactive about learning what your referring physicians want, you'll be well on your way to building a strong foundation of referrals for your group.

Now that you've read our 10 tactics, what are some ways you've been able to create and maintain strong relationships with referring physicians?

Kyle Bolton, the founder of Vital Signs: Radiology Marketing and Strategy, helps radiology groups, hospitals, and diagnostic imaging centers grow their practice and enhance their reputation. His strategies have been proved and tested in his practice, Ultrasound Dimensions. To learn more, visit www.vitalsignshq.com/blog/.


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