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The Latest Physician Liaison Strategies for Building Doctor Referrals

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer
A woman sitting at her desk being handed a variety of tasks.

As a healthcare marketing agency, we talk a lot about the many ways to grow an organization, from digital marketing and paid search to traditional advertising and branding. But there's another crucial way to grow a health practice, hospital, or health system, and that's with doctor referrals.

Of course, most hospital CEOs recognize that positive relationships with area private practices are vital to their admissions. Meanwhile, specialty practice physicians likewise rely heavily on primary care referrals.

I've spoken and written about doctor referral building countless times over the years. This week, I interviewed my friend and "subspecialist" expert Kriss Barlow to join me on our podcast. Co-founder of the consulting firm Barlow/McCarthy, Kriss is an expert on building referral relationships through physician liaisons.

In our lively conversation, Kriss dives straight into key strategies and tactics and describes how physician liaison strategies have changed over the years. Kriss also shares her top strategies to help hire and retain successful team members.

What is a Physician Liaison?

Today, physician liaisons are at the heart of the doctor referral strategy for hospitals, health systems and multilocation specialty practices. Each liaison's primary role is to build relationships with, and grow referrals from, area doctors and staff. (Note: the title physician liaison has evolved over time, and is sometimes used interchangeably with “physician relations,” “business development,” “practice representative” and even incorrectly “marketing person” or “PR person.”)

Twenty years ago, we used to teach doctors how they could personally grow and develop relationships with primary care physicians. While those relationship-building techniques still work, these days few established doctors have the time or desire to make relationship-building a priority. Even if they could find the time, most specialists worry they could inadvertently come across like a "begging salesperson."

Evolution: How has the physician liaison role evolved over the years?

When the pace of healthcare was slower, and the competition was lighter, young specialists would introduce themselves by dropping off business cards, and hospitals would employ physician liaisons to try and keep admitting doctors happy.

As everyone became busier and things became more complicated, the liaison role evolved from customer service to a true business development position. Today, professionals do a lot more than smile and hand out brochures. This is where physician liaison strategies come into the picture. Today's liaisons are experts at building referrals from both referring doctors and staff. They are unafraid of speaking with physicians and have an appropriate level of clinical knowledge. They follow up regularly to nurture relationships and grow referrers from "triers" to "loyalists. Their efforts create a measurable impact on their business's growth.

According to Kriss, the problems health organizations face today are vast and complicated. So, while customer service still matters in this role, she suggests a strategic, results-based approach that includes intentional messaging.

How has COVID-19 changed the position?

The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced access to practices across the nation. The savviest physician liaisons have found ways to overcome these new barriers by being resourceful and interacting with each office according to its individual needs. According to Kriss, liaisons can still ensure access and grow relationships, even when they have to do that 100% virtually.

What are the traits of a successful physician liaison?

Part salesperson, part relationship builder, a successful liaison, has a specific set of essential characteristics or skills.

According to Kriss, they must be consistent, demonstrate knowledge of what a doctor wants and needs, and prove accessibility.

Consistency: "You just have to be consistent," says Kriss. "Because when that doctor needs a specialist, the name of the specialist must pop to the top of their mind when they're with a patient." According to Kriss, there's a fine line between staying consistent within a genuine relationship and being annoying. A successful liaison finds that balance.

Knowledge of the target audience: Physician liaisons must genuinely know what the doctor wants and needs, and then give them that information. To accomplish this goal, they must have those real conversations with doctors or the staff and find out the qualities and services that are important to them.

According to Kriss, most doctors want quality and safety. With these in mind, an effective liaison communicates the quality and safety of the practice they represent. This approach makes the role quite different from traditional sales.

Demonstrate access: Kriss says that doctors want the ability to transfer their patients over to a specialist quickly. They want access and prompt communication from the doctor.

Ability to create relationships with everyone at the office: According to Kriss, liaisons need to build relationships with each internal practice team member and learn their roles.

"They need to understand what they're trying to grow and the growth driver in that practice, because they need to have relationships with everybody."

Physician Liaison Strategies for Success

The role of a physician liaison is often clouded and changes depending on the type of organization. However, there are many ways to make sure that you hire and train your employees and set them up for success.

According to Kriss, it's important to provide them with structure, the right approach to the role, and strategy, "so that they can be a part of the team and they can put their best foot forward with referring physicians."

What are some common mistakes hospitals and practices make regarding physician liaisons?

In previous posts, I've personally shared some of the many ways companies can ruin a perfectly good physician liaison role. In our podcast, I asked Kriss to tell me what she believes is the top mistakes companies make when hiring this person.

According to Kriss, one major issue is lack of focus, or giving the person a wide variety of tasks in addition to the field role. Instead of being out in the field, the person is stuck behind a desk doing marketing tasks about 70 to 80 percent of the time.

The second major mistake is hiring someone who is not articulate or doesn't know how to talk about the clinical service offerings and carry a conversation.

What type of technology and tools do they need?

To build doctor referrals, a physician liaison needs the following:

  • Good data sources (such as claims data): An excellent liaison has this information and understands how to use and track it internally.
  • PRM (physician relationship management) software: A PRM allows liaisons to use the data to better understand the target audience and track whether their efforts are working in the right direction.

How do you scale the position for multilocation practices and hospitals?

Kriss recommends having a centralized structure to help the team instead of allowing the liaisons to work individually. With this approach, everyone is evaluated based on the same system; they have the same tracking tools and technology and have the same field expectations. A manager or supervisor who understands sales should lead this team.With a centralized system, each liaison can then depend on their local site for the clinical depth and some of the local support that comes up.

Growing Your Practice with Doctor Referrals

As you investigate ways to grow your health organization with physician liaisons, there's a lot to consider, including recruiting, training, and evaluating progress or ROI. When our clients want in-depth consulting on these topics, we often partner with Kriss. You can contact us or inquire with Kriss directly.

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