Are Physician Liaison Programs a No-Win, Zero-Sum Marketing Game?

Hands cupped together holding 'light" against black background We’d like to hear from our readers about a quote from a USA Today story. (We suspect that more than a few people will have a reply…perhaps a passionate reply.)

The subject matter is physician liaison work and the context is primarily about hospital-physician relations. More broadly however, the subject is physician referral marketing in general, including from physician to physician. There’s something here for almost anyone involved with doctor marketing.

The USA Today article, titled Hospitals hire reps to sell doctors on patient referrals, quoted Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change. He said:

“When you look at the health system, [a physician liaison program] is a waste of resources. It’s a zero-sum game. The net results of changing physician-referral patterns is that one hospital gains at a cost of others, and all the hospitals burn resources to pay (sales) people who take up the doctor’s time.”

We wonder if you agree that it’s a no-win game. Before you comment, here’s the background to this story and the context for Mr. Ginsburg’s quote. First, you will want to read the full article written by Phil Galewitz, Kaiser Health News.

We were mildly surprised at the implication that physician liaison programs are new. Sometimes the titles will vary, but Physician Liaison, Physician Relations, Practice Representatives have an important marketing role for practices, hospitals and health systems for quite some time. Perhaps this is new information to the general public.

The article describes the work of a physician liaison employee for the University of Chicago Medical Center and others in the field. As they describe their physician liaison work, “We are trying to build meaningful relationships.”

“[Representatives provide doctors with] the latest information on how their facility is reducing hospital-acquired infections and improving patient-satisfaction scores. [And they] can also carry messages back to the hospital, such as a doctor’s request for a new medical device to be available in surgery.”

It doesn’t sound like a zero-sum game from their perspective. A physician who is better informed, benefits from facility improvements, and has the best medical equipment is one beneficiary. And more importantly, the patient benefits from the best available care and facilities.

The article sparked comments on the USA Today page including touching a nerve with a Nashville individual who works in the healthcare industry.

She writes, in part, “I work with hospitals to set up physician outreach & support programs. I agree, there [are] a lot of programs out there that are FLUFF (no value to the doc or the hospital). My goal is to strengthen the relationship between the hospital and its medical community.

“The physicians that we work with love the program. We ask them what they need, we advocate for them, we keep them in the know about what’s going on at the hospital, we introduce physicians to each other that have a common interest/common goals, we uncover barriers that prevent the physician from being loyal to the hospital (whether that means referrals, employment retention or taking a larger leadership role at the hospital) and we work with the CEO of the hospital to address those concerns.

“We are 100% driven by value to the physician and the hospital. I will not waste a doc’s time. If I don’t have something of value (what they would consider value) to deliver then I don’t stop. Sales is often a dirty word, especially in health care but for me sales means identifying a problem or need and offering solutions.”

Zero-Sum or Win-Win? What do you think?

Is physician liaison work burning resources and taking up the doctor’s time? Does the liaison work in both directions, including advocating the needs and interests of the doctors? If you are a Physician Liaison, a doctor, surgeon, administrator or marketing professional, we’d like to know how you see the upside and the downside.


Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer & Creative Director at Healthcare Success
Over the years Stewart has personally marketed and consulted for over 1,457 healthcare clients, ranging from private practices to multi-billion dollar corporations. Additionally, he has marketed a variety of America’s leading companies, including Citicorp, J. Walter Thompson, Grubb & Ellis, Bally Total Fitness, Wells Fargo and Chase Manhattan. Stewart co-founded our company, and today acts as Chief Executive Officer and Creative Director. He is also a frequent author and speaker on the topic of healthcare marketing. His personal accomplishments are supported by a loving wife and two beautiful daughters.



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