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Young Ophthalmologists
Maximizing Patient Referrals

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Your patients present a golden opportunity to market your practice. Should you overlook or choose not to cultivate this group of credible advocates, you may be passing up a low-cost, high-return method of marketing and growing your practice.

Your marketing plan should be made up of internal and external tactics. Patient referrals should be considered an important part of your internal marketing plan. As such, a percentage of time and dollars need to be allocated accordingly.

Implementing a plan for maintaining and increasing your referrals should be a large part of the overall strategy to capture new business within your practice. Ensuring this happens is the responsibility of the entire staff.

Factors Affecting Referrals
I am sure you can easily recall a time when you received bad customer service. You then likely shared your unsavory experience with others, possibly several. Your patients aren’t much different.

Health care providers, like other businesses, tend to think that our patients (or customers) are happy, satisfied and out there singing our praises to the masses. The reality is that unhappy patients will tell seven to 10 people (and this number could be much higher given the proliferation of online blogs) about their experience. By contrast, happy patients may tell only one to three people. The key to successfully mining your patient referrals is keeping your patients’ satisfaction level high and encouraging them to talk positively about your practice to others.

Understanding what prompts a patient to refer others to your practice will be a key factor in how you maintain and grow this aspect of your business. Putting yourself in the patient’s shoes is a good way to think about what is relevant and meaningful from their standpoint. Think about every touchpoint the patient has with your practice.

Start with the phone call a prospective patient makes for an appointment. This will be the first factor in whether the patient decides to schedule an appointment. A prompt answer followed by a friendly voice you can visualize smiling answering the phone will be the first positive indicator to a potential patient as to whether or not to proceed with scheduling the appointment. On the other hand, a phone that rings several times without an answer, only to be picked up with a gruff “Please hold” will create quite another impression. Is the receptionist helpful in answering the caller’s questions or does he or she respond with “I don’t know, I am just the receptionist”?

Now think about the visit. Directions, location, parking, atmosphere (such as homey or state of the art), décor, the comfort of the reception area (and quality of reading material), wait time and demeanor of the staff all have a key influence on patient perception. Don’t overlook the post-visit communication such as billing statements, information the practice promised to send and follow-up calls. If the patient concludes the overall experience was a pleasant one, the probability of referrals is very good. However, by falling short in meeting patient expectations, not only will you increase the probability of the patient seeking care elsewhere, but the likelihood of referrals becomes slim to none. Moreover, the probability of the unsatisfied patient sharing his or her negative experience with others becomes very likely — something that could tarnish the practice reputation and reduce revenue.

Using Focus Groups
In addition to follow-up calls, consider focus groups as a way to understand what your patients really think about your practice. Invite six to eight patients who have recently visited your practice to meet for breakfast, lunch or dinner and provide input on your practice. Try to convene a diverse group with a mix of genders, ages and doctors seen in the practice so you can analyze their comments. Invite a different group of patients each quarter so you can hear from a number of patients throughout the year.

Patients are generally more than willing to participate if they understand you value their feedback and you are committed to creating the best experience possible. Giving them some input into their health care and soliciting their feedback sends a strong message you are willing to listen. This is true even though you cannot always implement suggestions. At the same time, feedback may indicate you can improve patient satisfaction with something as simple as more educational materials, better signage or a more comfortable office temperature.

Capturing Referrals
Just as it is important to acquire new-patient referrals, it is critical to track who is actually doing the referring. The standard intake sheet should have a section designated for this information, but it will require some diligence from your office staff to see that this information is captured. Oftentimes we find that a patient will simply say they were sent in by a “friend,” but what we really want to know is, “Whom should we thank for referring you?” Having your check-in person take the responsibility of probing a little further for a name is very important to being able to track and reward patients who are sending you referrals. You want to avoid a patient saying, “I have sent several people to your office,” but not being able to thank them for doing so in a personal note or e-mail. Referral-source information is also critical in tracking the funds you may have allocated to external marketing efforts, such as television or newspaper outreach.

Implementing a Referral Plan

Now that you have a clear picture of the importance and relevance of patient referrals and how they can affect the bottom line in your practice, we can examine ways to incorporate a referral plan into your daily practice routine.

The simple act of asking someone to refer others to your practice is probably one of the hardest jobs to ask of your doctor and staff. To eliminate resistance, you may want to educate your staff on the importance of referrals, then implement training and methods for approaching patients.

One way to transition into this pattern is to develop a script that staff can modify to fit their personality. The last thing you want is a “canned” monotone and insincere plea for new business. Conversely, you also do not want an overaggressive staff member constantly badgering the patient to the point of discomfort. A very simple, short message from your doctor or technician may be: “Ms. Smith, we are pleased you are doing so well following your cataract surgery. I hope that you will tell all your friends and family about us so that we may also help them with their eye care needs.” At this point, handing a business card or brochure becomes a very natural and expected gesture from the patient’s point of view. The desired result of your training is that eventually the request for referrals becomes second nature and a normal part of the daily routine in the practice.

Giving a promotional item away at check out, such as a logoed pen with card attached is an easy way to show your appreciation, remind the patient to think of your practice and to ask for referrals. Be sure that the patients leave your office with a positive message such as, “Is there anything else, we can do for you today?” or “Thank-you for coming in.”

Thanking Referrers

Let’s assume that your staff is now comfortable asking for referrals and your new-patient numbers are on the rise. The next step is to recognize those patients sending new business your way. As a health care provider, you certainly cannot pay your patients to refer, but you can reward them in non-monetary ways.

It is human nature that most people want and enjoy being recognized for something they have done. The following ideas are inexpensive and easy to implement for thanking your patients.

  1. Always send a thank-you note, ideally signed by the doctor.
  2. Start a Practice Ambassador Club for people who send you referrals often. Hold a patient appreciation day with refreshments served and give out simple practice promotional materials to those attending.

If you produce a newsletter, solicit information from your patients on the content they would like to see. Consider having a section dedicated to patients who might have received an award or have an announcement to share. With your patients’ consent, highlighting a golden wedding anniversary or the birth of a new grandchild in your newsletter will send a strong message that your practice really does care about and appreciate patients.

It is important to remember that you will always have a select group of patients who will consistently refer patients to you. On any given day, patients hold the power to send you one or many referrals. You may be seeing the president of a major corporation, a human resource manager or the retired senior who has a network of friends in need of your services. Treat every patient as if they were your most important person of the day, assure them their business is appreciated and, most likely, your efforts will be rewarded.

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About the author: Debi Dilling is the director of marketing for Snead Cataract in Ft. Myers, Fla.