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If you’re a specialist, you probably have an instinctive notion that referrals are a prerequisite to doing business. Even though patients are doing more research than ever when it comes to selecting health care providers, a recommendation from their primary care physician is still the biggest influencer: Primary care is responsible for up to 70 percent of referrals, and understanding how to both open and maintain that line of communication is crucial for any specialty medical practice.

That’s why many large groups and hospital system utilize a physician liaison, an individual who acts as a provider’s avatar in the community, informing health care professionals of their services and reporting back with information about the landscape in their area.

“In specialty practices, what haunts doctors is the fear that no one will know what they offer,” says Kriss Barlow, RN, a principal of hospital consulting firm Barlow/McCarthy and an expert in physician marketing. “They could be Harvard-educated and still think, ‘No one knows who I am.’”

Liaisons can fix that. But the mistake specialists make is believing the liaison is autonomous and can direct a steady flow of new patients into a practice without the provider lifting a finger. Providers must take an active, not passive, role in patient recruitment. Here’s how to make the most of this growing network of health care advocates.

Why Liaisons Matter

Decades ago, physicians and specialists could count on seeing one another at hospitals, during conferences, or at community events. Trust and relationships would build from there. But in today’s atomized environment of hospitalists and sprawling medical networks, primaries aren’t the hospital regulars they once were, and cursory attempts to capture their attention often fall flat.

“A dinner or a brochure isn’t enough anymore,” Barlow says. “Over the last 15 years, liaisons have become a big part of the tool kit.”

Liaisons are often former pharmaceutical or medical equipment representatives who have knowledge of the health care industry and specific clinical data along with interpersonal skills. While a provider’s day is packed with appointments, the liaison acts as their conduit in the surrounding area, pitching their skills to potential referrers. In one survey conducted by the Clinical Advisory Board, 66 percent of physicians said it would be highly unlikely they would change their referral process without a liaison intervening to educate them on their options.

What Liaisons Need from You

If you’re part of a network or large specialty group—say, orthopedics—then it’s very possible your umbrella organization has one or more liaisons working to increase your referrer base by visiting with physicians. But remember that they’re not there as a substitution for your reputation and experience: They’re there to represent those strengths. And to do that, they need to come armed with the proper information.

“Primary providers will want to know what procedures you specialize in, what your rates of infection are, what insurance you take that the competition might not, and what your subspecialty might be,” Barlow says. The more hard clinical data you can share with your liaison, the more you’ll stand out from the rest of possible referral sources.

Barlow also advocates keeping your door open with liaisons. If they need to meet and discuss strategies, make the time. And if they want to introduce you to a primary care physician or other specialist who might refer a patient to you because of your expertise, embrace the opportunity. “If you’re interested in practice growth,” Barlow says, “you have that obligation.”

What You Need from a Liaison

Physician liaisons are more than just sales reps with a charming disposition—they need to be incredibly well-versed in clinical information that will be relevant to the physician they’re soliciting. “They need to showcase what you or your organization has to offer,” Barlow says. If it’s ablation in a cardio practice, then they need to be able to articulate the procedure and have a reasonably well-informed conversation with a medical professional.

For most physicians, that also means convincing them that your quality of care and safety profile is second to none. It also means an effective communication of why a primary might consider you over the abdominal surgeon he or she has been using for years. If you have an exciting new procedure, make sure your liaison is versed in it.

Don’t Sleep on Referrals

Against some imposing odds, your liaison may have convinced a stubborn primary physician to refer a patient to you. At this point, the liaison’s job is largely over, and it’s up to you to acknowledge you respect the physician’s recommendation by affording a prompt appointment. “It’s saying you appreciate their diagnosis and will get them right in,” Barlow says.

Ask yourself: are you ready for that new referral? Are phones being answered quickly and with a warm tone to offset that new patient anxiety? Is the bandwidth there? If you can see them right away, even better. Expedited appointments will benefit both patient and referrer, and can also be used to bolster your profile in future meetings. Having a liaison able to say that a specialist averages a two-week wait time might appeal to a provider who’s used to dealing with wait periods of months.

Communicate with Primary Care

When Barlow/McCarthy conducted a survey of primary care physicians and what they felt was most important in a referral, they rated quality of care and safety as the top factors. What else made the list? Communication. “Responding and communication with the provider is just the right thing to do,” Barlow says. Remember that primary providers are “lifers”—they’re taking a decades-long interest in the health of their patients, and that involves being kept abreast of how their care is proceeding outside of their offices.

This is where your liaison can play yet another pivotal role. In meeting with providers, your advocate can gather a good idea of how he or she likes to be updated. Is it after every appointment? Only after diagnostic tests are performed? Only after discharge? Do they want written reports? By soliciting their preferred level of involvement and then adhering to it, you’re displaying you’re attentive to the provider’s individual needs.

Have Patience

Even the best liaisons don’t hit home runs their first time at bat. It can take multiple meetings with potential referrers before they’ve instilled enough confidence to refer a patient to you. Remember that liaisons may be trying to break longstanding patterns and comfort levels. “If a physician has always referred abdominal surgery patients to a Doctor Smith, why change?” Barlow says. The liaison can answer that question, but only with your support.

In the fourth and final part of our series on recruiting new patients, we look at some common mistakes made with referral programs and how to avoid them.

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