Whether you find yourself in an academic practice, large group practice, or small private practice, at some point you will need to find a way to connect with referring providers to build your patient base. The following tips helped me build my practice, and hopefully they will be useful for you as well.
One of my mentors taught me about the three "As" when starting a practice. The first is ability: Being a competent specialist and surgeon is what you have been focusing on during training, and continued dedication toward improvement is crucial. Referring providers want to know their patients are well cared for in your hands.
Second is affability: Being kind and friendly goes a long way. If you are warm and kind to the referring provider, then they will anticipate you being nice to their patients as well.
Third is availability: Give referring providers your personal cell phone number and encourage them to use it. Do your best to take their calls, respond to text messages, and get their patients in to your clinic quickly. Also, always update your referring providers on the patients they send you. Many referring doctors often feel left in the dark when they don’t receive information on their patients, and you can strengthen your relationship with them by creating an open line of communication.
Find Your Niche
It is important to remember that you do not have to establish a referral base from the entire market in order to support your clinic. Having a small group of providers refer to you will often be enough to support your practice. If you have fellowship training, or particular interests in certain conditions (dry eyes, pediatric cataracts, neuro-ophthalmology etc.), make sure to let others know that you are an accessible resource for patients with these conditions. Are there primary care or optometry practices that do not regularly refer to the practice you joined? If so, set up meetings with providers in these practices and try to focus on meeting their needs to establish a new connection.
Hit the Road
Although phone calls and letters are nice, there is nothing that can replace face-to-face interaction when trying to build a referral relationship. When you first start, make sure you go to each potential referring practice. As you continue in your practice, consider scheduling a longer lunch hour a few times per month to visit local primary care and optometry practices to meet referring providers. Make sure to bring some business cards and any other materials that may be helpful. If you have rural communities in your referral area, it can make a big impact to take the time to drive out and meet them.
As a young ophthalmologist, you may be approached by your local ophthalmology or optometry societies for presentations at conferences or group meetings. Accept these invitations as much as you can starting out. These group settings are great opportunities for you to reach a larger audience, get to know new, local providers and provide useful information for your referral base. Taking initiative in reaching out and even connecting with local primary care practices or state ophthalmology societies can also be a great way to form new connections. You and your practice can also organize educational talks during lunch or dinner or via online webinars to educate your referring providers on common conditions you would manage and when they should consider referring patients to you.
Connect on Social Media
As a YO, you are likely much more familiar and comfortable with social media than your more senior faculty members or practice partners. There are many referring providers who are likely active on social media and this can be a great way to form new connections. If you do not already have professional social media accounts, it may well be worth the time to start them up and post with some frequency. Try searching for local practices, primary care clinics, and optometrists. Making a connection online can be a good first step in establishing a referral relationship.
In summary, establishing a referral base can seem like a lot of work when first starting out, but in reality, there are a few simple steps you can take to be successful as the new doc in town. Work hard, do your best, and remember to be patient and trust that the efforts you are putting in now, will produce benefits with time.
||About the author: Brad S. Henriksen, MD, is a pediatric ophthalmologist at Excel Eye Center in Provo, Utah. He joined the YO Info editorial board in 2022 and is also a member of the Academy’s Committee on Medical Information Technology.