Boosting Physician Referrals in Today's Hypercompetitive Healthcare Environment

Chris Lundgren
Chris Lundgren

The hospital and health system landscape is in a state of deep transformation, one where regulatory demands, the rise of accountable care organizations, mergers and acquisitions and other factors are all converging to create an environment that can be summed up in one word: hypercompetitive.

To survive such hypercompetition, healthcare organizations are making necessary transitions in clinical processes, patient procedures and technologies, but attracting physician referrals remains an overlooked area. This is an area where tremendous opportunities exist to gain a competitive edge and increase revenue.

At first glance, the focus on boosting physician referrals might appear contrary to the current obsession with patient-centric marketing. But creating a strong and consistent physician referral base actually complements patient marketing—and it can even improve results.

Consider the facts. According to the Annals of Internal Medicine, on average a physician refers to 229 other physicians. A New York Times article also estimated that physicians receive up to 45% of new patients by referrals. And Becker's Hospital Review recently asserted that hospitals and health systems should direct a greater percentage of marketing resources to attracting physicians rather than to consumers.

To achieve better results in physician referrals, hospitals and health systems can look to the strategies, tactics and tools leveraged by other industries. The following three steps provide a best practices blueprint for boosting physician referrals.

Step One: Standardize Referral Processes

Standardizing processes for managing and attracting physician referrals is a critical first step. This can be achieved systematically by adopting a four-step process utilized by many other industries:

1. Analyze market opportunities by geographic market and specialty

2. Analyze your current referral base to understand penetration by specialty

3. Rank and segment physicians by referral penetration and referral potential

4. Develop targeted marketing strategies to reach each segment

Step Two: Maintain Accurate Master Physician Data

The types of analyses in Step One require accurate physician data. This can be gleaned from a hospital or health system's internal database to reveal broad behavioral patterns. If data gaps or data inaccuracies exist, they will render any analysis incomplete and incorrect. A cost-effective solution to this problem is to partner with a third-party data provider to clean and append your database. For deeper business intelligence and pinpoint targeting, look for data solutions with information on organizational affiliations, capabilities and decision makers.

Step Three: Develop Multichannel Physician Marketing Strategies

Most patients choose hospitals or health systems based on physician referrals rather than consumer-directed marketing. In order to achieve a strong and consistent physician referral base, organizations need a marketing strategy designed specifically to attract physicians. This strategy should address the following: modes of delivery, the conflict between employed and independent physicians and the top factors driving physician referrals.

When selecting modes of delivery, strategies must take into account the communication preferences and behaviors of physicians. Recent estimates report that 62% of physicians prefer to be contacted by email, 75% of them own a smartphone and 55% of them use a tablet and smartphone in their daily work. What these insights reveal is clear: Email must be a part of every physician marketing strategy, along with direct mail, letters of introduction delivered by electronic health records and meet-and-greet luncheons.

Resolving the conflict between employed and independent physicians requires acknowledging that employed physicians are perceived as competitors: 60% of family doctors and pediatricians, 50% of surgeons and 25% of surgical subspecialists are now employed by hospitals or health systems. This conflict can be resolved by developing different marketing tactics, policies and processes for employed physicians and independent physicians. For example, hospitals and health systems that choose to make outbound referrals to independent community doctors should design strategies that foster an environment of referral reciprocity.

Last, but not least, physician marketing strategies should emphasize the top factors influencing physician referrals:

  • medical skill of the specialist: 87.5%
  • access to the practice and acceptance of insurance: 59%
  • previous experience with the specialist: 59.2%
  • quality of communication: 52.5%

By making the strategic adjustments outlined in this article, hospitals and health systems can differentiate their organizations, influence patient decisions and realize the revenue potential of physician referrals.

Chris Lundgren is SVP of sales for Healthcare Data Solutions.