Marketing, Promotion, Public Relations

Establishing an Effective Physician Referral Network
UPMC Launches Web Site to Educate Patients on Clinical Trials

Establishing an Effective Physician Referral Network

By Steve Conlee and Brian Neff

Steve Conlee
Brian Neff

Editor’s Note: This article is part one of a two-part series about building physician referral networks. Next month, the authors go into more detail regarding how to communicate with physicians in a way that develops them into active and profitable referrers.

Not many physicians would consider the building of a physician referral network to be a top business priority. Fewer still would categorize that effort as marketing or advertising. Yet, approaching the task strategically builds and strengthens profitable relationships.

Marketing is essentially focused on creating profitable exchange relationships: One party has a need that another party can satisfy. Often, both parties must interact, or at least connect, through a third party called a channel or intermediary.

Referring Physicians: Intermediaries

It is more efficient for certain medical specialists to reach their end customers (patients) through other medical groups that have broader reach and more consistent contact with those patients. To see 100 new patients, a specialist might need to develop and maintain relationships with only 10 referring physicians.

The question then is, how do you build those effective, profitable referring physician relationships? At Medical Marketing Resource, Provo, Utah, we’ve developed a systematic way of creating and executing a physician referral marketing program for our clients.

All of our clients are medical specialists, and as such, they are in a unique situation. They typically receive all the referrals they want for commonly known procedures, but they may see few referrals for lesser-known but more rewarding procedures.

Potentially, a large population of patients needs these preferred procedures, but the patients remain either undiagnosed or treated with more popular, yet suboptimal techniques. Referring physicians need to be educated regarding the benefits of new procedures and on the diagnosis of the underlying disease. For example, the treatment of varicose veins with laser or RF ablation is a widespread medical problem for which a highly effective, yet less-known treatment is available.

So, educating referring physicians is important, but you first must target the right physicians. And beyond contacting and educating those physicians, you must cultivate their trust. We say “cultivate,” because trust typically is developed over time and multiple interactions rather than from a single handshake, phone call, or credential-filled letter.

Thus, the priorities of a successful physician referral program are:

  1. targeting and contacting physicians with the most potential; and
  2. educating and building trust with them.

Targeting the Right Physicians

Which physicians should you target? Obviously, you will want to exert your efforts on physicians who are most likely to refer a significant number of patients to you. Important groups include physicians with whom you have an existing relationship, specialists who commonly see patients needing the procedures you offer, and physicians who see patients in your practice geography.

Outside of physicians who send you referrals already, think about what specialists are most likely to see patients needing the procedures you offer. For example, physicians offering new procedures for varicose veins may see a high number of referrals from OB/GYNs, dermatologists, and wound clinics. Also, consider natural flows of traffic in your area. What cities, towns, and neighborhoods are naturally affiliated with where your practice is located—psychologically, geographically, and based on normal traffic flows?

Educating and Building Trust

Typically, you will educate and build trust at the same time. By educating potential referring physicians, they begin to see you as the source of information regarding the target disease and the innovative treatment you deliver.

You might find it efficient to use material from medical manufacturers when educating potential referring physicians, but you want to avoid using material overtly branded by those manufacturers. Always use customized, professional marketing collateral (eg, brochures, cards, etc) that positions you as the expert and your practice as the solution.

Beyond branding issues, when you send manufacturer-created marketing material to potential referring physicians, the manufacturer could be seen as the expert. As a result, it will take longer to establish trust, and those target physicians might contact the manufacturer and eventually become your competitor.

Steve Conlee and Brian Neff are partners with Medical Marketing Resource, Provo, Utah. For more information, contact .

UPMC Launches Web Site to Educate Patients on Clinical Trials

A new Web site developed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Cancer Centers helps cancer patients and their families learn about clinical trials via an interactive platform through which patients can have their questions answered by UPMC experts and former clinical trial participants. Visitors type in their questions, and the answers come back in video format.

Samuel Jacobs, MD, associate director of clinical investigations at UPMC Cancer Centers, explained that the Web site began with a grant 3 years ago. “We received a grant from the National Cancer Institute and several pharmaceutical companies to look at barriers to participation in early-phase clinical trials,” he said. “One barrier was patient issues—mistrust, discomfort, and misunderstanding about clinical trials.”

UPMC Cancer Centers’ first effort at reaching patients came in the form of a lecture series delivered in community centers around Pittsburgh; unfortunately, turnout was lackluster. “What we found was that on a good day, we might have 50 people in the audience; on a bad day, we might have 15,” Jacobs recalled. “We weren’t really reaching large numbers of patients. Our Web site, on the other hand, gets about 25,000 [unique visitors] a month, and if we can channel some of those [visitors] into this synthetic interview, we have a chance to reach a much wider audience.”

Initially, Jacobs and his team, which consisted of university informatics staff as well as nurses and physicians involved in clinical research, wanted patients to be able to type in a question and receive a video response—simple as that. But the reality turned out to be a little thornier than they had envisioned. “We basically did it ourselves, and it really looked like we did it ourselves,” Jacobs said. “It’s also very difficult to have precise [matches] on all the questions. It didn’t seem as real as we wanted it to, and there were a lot of gaps.”

That was when UPMC brought in MedRespond, Pittsburgh, a company founded to commercialize a technology called Synthetic Interview that has been patented by Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s menu-driven,” Jacobs said. “We’ve listed a number of topics and questions, and the user gets answers from a guide, a physician, or a series of patients.” Jacobs himself is featured on the site, along with Dwight Heron, MD, director of radiation oncology services; and Marguerite Bonaventura, MD, assistant professor in the division of surgical oncology.

“I can’t tell you how many patients have entered clinical trials because of it,” Jacobs said, “but I can tell you that I have a patient who lives in Michigan and entered a clinical trial here after he found it through the site.”

The next step? A clinical trial, of course. “We are really going to test this method of disseminating information in a clinical trial developed around the synthetic interview, comparing giving Web-based information with the standard brochure,” Jacobs said.

—C. Vasko