The care and feeding of your inbound referral pipeline

In physician marketing, direct referrals into the practice often represent a large and significant segment of new business development, which, regrettably, is often a neglected part of the doctor marketing plan.

We're talking about the two distinct types of inbound referrals -- patient referrals and professional referrals -- where business development costs are low and the results are exceptionally fruitful. About 22 million patients are referred from one healthcare professional to a professional colleague. And patient referrals account for hundreds of times more than that number.

What's more, referrals into the practice are one aspect of doctor advertising that is relatively low-key, while reflecting positively on your reputation and building your physician marketing and branding message.

Although this all sounds easy and appealing, a successful referral pipeline requires constant care and feeding. And much of what's required amounts to things you already know -- stuff you intend to do and procedures that should be working.

The primary enemy of these good intentions is most often unintentional neglect. More accurately, "some things slip through the cracks" in an ultra-busy office environment.

A continuing referral stream is the product of a deliberate and unfailing systematic approach. Neither professional referrals nor patient referrals occur consistently by accident. Your practice reputation alone will not carry the day. Reliable results come from a system that always holds a high priority for the provider and for the staff. Here are seven guiding principles to keep a referral pipeline flowing:

  1. Identify and cultivate your best sources of frequent referrals. For both professional and patient referrals, know your strengths -- who makes referrals and why they refer to you. Expect to find the 80-20 Rule at work. It will be the "vital few" (20 percent) who are responsible for the vast majority (80 percent) of the results.
  2. Understand expectations and motivations. Above and beyond the need for clinical services, what do referred patients expect from you when they arrive? What does a referring physician expect from your practice in order for he or she to make, or continue to make, referrals? Set a standard that exceeds these expectations.
  3. Constantly educate referral sources about how you can help them. Neither the patient nor professional colleagues are fully aware of all the services that you can provide. Communicate benefits, not features. How can you make their life easier or better?
  4. For professional referral sources, master the feedback and follow-up. Invest time in letting referring physicians know what's going on. Find out what they want to know, in what form and how often, then deliver it consistently.
  5. Anticipate change; grow your professional referral network now. Many, if not most, healthcare delivery systems and referral chains are no longer predictable. Don't wait for connections to disappear before developing alternatives.
  6. Appreciate and acknowledge referrals. Mindful of the professional guidelines about tangible rewards, both professional colleagues and patients draw personal satisfaction from knowing that referrals are appreciated. A word of thanks, a handshake and a personal note can mean a lot.
  7. Make sure you've got a system in place to make it happen. Professional colleagues and patients alike will refer when they can see how your services can benefit others.

Referrals do not appear at your doorstep magically or automatically. A consistent flow of referrals is the result of maintaining a deliberate system every day. But without regular attention, the stream will quietly dry and evaporate. 

© Copyright Healthcare Success Strategies, Inc. Published with permission from the authors.

About the authors: 
Lonnie Hirsch and Stewart Gandolf, MBA, are two of America’s most experienced healthcare marketers. They have a combined 30 years experience, have written hundreds of articles and have consulted with over 3,500 healthcare clients, including medical groups, hospitals, doctors and corporations. Additionally, Lonnie and Stewart have spoken at hundreds of venues across North America to tens of thousands of healthcare executives and doctors. As co-founders of Healthcare Success Strategies, they lead a team of over 40 Healthcare Marketing All-Stars. You may reach either of them directly by calling 800-656-0907, through their website at or via email at .