Building a robust referral network is incredibly important for any physician starting out. As ophthalmologists, we need a league of optometrists for both referral and ongoing co-management. However, if you approach the process from a purely marketing ROI perspective, it is probably not going to work out well. The mentality should be more about building relationships—mutually beneficial relationships that can continue throughout your career. This is more difficult and time-consuming than traditional marketing, but is critical to a successful and happy career with lasting friendships and professional relationships.
For us at Retina Consultants San Diego, creativity and a personal touch are key. Optometrists in our area may very well receive a package, open it, and find a 22 ounce bottle of Stone Brewery’s Buenaveza beer labeled with the abbreviated CV and a smiling headshot of our newest doctor, Michael Ammar, MD.
For a holiday gift they may receive a wooden puzzle, handmade by a family member, sharing two of my passions—solving both retinal and mechanical puzzles. For a lecture, attendees might find nice printouts of a collage of OCT findings to take as a souvenir. Along with the tried-and-true traditional approaches, these are some one of the novel ways we introduce RCSD and our physicians to ODs throughout our community.
Develop a co-management mindset
There's a perception out there that ophthalmologists don't really recognize the importance of the role that optometrists play with their patients. Building a network requires mutual respect, beginning with the MD’s acknowledgment of the ODs vital function, is crucial.
To use a football reference, I think of ODs as the quarterbacks of a team which we are all playing on together. They are the ones responsible for taking in the big picture, watching everything, and making sure the patient is doing well in all aspects—like a quarterback or concierge PCP. We, as retina surgeons (or cataract, refractive, or glaucoma) are like the specialty players on that team. If you don’t value the quarterback's role and contribution, they're not going to throw you the ball, and they're not going to involve you in the play.
The three A’s of building a solid network
I like to approach networking with the attitude of “I'm just going to focus on being a good doctor, helping as many patients as I can, and getting involved and becoming a part of the community.”
Starting out, doctors need to prioritize being the three A's: available, able, and affable.
For comprehensive continuity of care, communication is key. Therefore, make yourself available from the first meeting.
Keys to availability:
- Supply both an up-to-date office and cell phone number as well as an email address.
- Commit to returning calls and messages promptly.
- Provide all pertinent paperwork in a timely manner.
- Speak directly with patients when appropriate.
- Let ODs know you are available to answer simple questions, even without a patient referral.
With regards to the final bullet, when an optometrist finds a patient sitting in their chair who has a complex or confusing condition out of their regular realm of expertise, it can be challenging. The patient is often nervous and demanding answers. If you let it be known the OD can call you and say, “I’m not sure if you can see this patient, but can you look at these photos or offer some advice?,” it goes a long way to building trusting relationships.
Plain and simple, you have to be good at what you do and instill a sense of confidence in the referring ODs and patients alike. Until this has been established through your work at your current clinic, make a habit of providing your CV, references, and any other information that will validate your commitment and competence.
This also means utilizing your training and skills to the best of your ability every time. However, beyond the technical, it also means treating the patients beyond their pathology and providing continuity of care by referring them back to their primary care optometrist with all of the necessary recommendations and tools to achieve optimal long-range results.
Never forget, others want to know that surgeons are people too. You can be completely capable, but if you are impersonal, condescending, or a robot, then you're not going to be as successful. Remember to be human, find common ground, and don’t be afraid to use a little self deprecating humor to make somebody smile. As opposed to the super-formal, always-business physician, be a doctor who others would actually want to hang out with or be friends with.
Optometrists want to send their patients to someone who will make them feel welcome, safe, respected, listened to, and ultimately taken care of. Be that doctor.
Practical and tactical steps toward gaining referrals
As a new ophthalmologist, whether straight out of residency or fellowship or very early in a career, striking out in a new community can be a challenge. But by taking a few simple steps, you can start to create an organic network that will continue to grow.
Don’t underestimate door-to-door
The first step to building a rich referral network involves actual steps, as in walking into a practice, introducing yourself, and dropping off business cards. In the digital age, many substitute an email for a face-to-face introduction, but in my experience, there is no comparison.
Aim to eventually visit every practice in your community. Start with doctors who are already familiar with the group you have joined and are currently referring to its partners. Let them know you are new on staff and eager to help. Next, I recommend calling on the boutique and smaller independent practices. Then, move on to those specialty practices whose patients will likely need the specific services you offer. Finally, introduce yourself to the larger, more primary practices and corporate chains.
In every instance, approach with the script of “I'm here to just say ‘hello,’ and let you know about myself and that I'm available. I love helping patients, I want to help wherever I can and do whatever I can that's needed. I just want to get to know you, your practice, and become a bigger part of the community.”
If going to every practice is not practical, opt for a letter over an email. Emails are so often overlooked and just come across as lazy. And, while the phone is great, it is often hard to reach the right person. So, if at all possible, make a face-to-face connection.
Gain visibility in the community
Another way to garner referrals is by gaining legitimacy and familiarity throughout the professional community in your area.
Visibility can be achieved through:
- Speaking at conferences or professional meetings.
- Contributing articles to ophthalmology publications, like Eyes On Eyecare.
- Writing an ophthalmology blog for your practice website.
- Lecturing at local medical schools and residency programs.
- Taking part in career fairs.
- Posting surgical videos and instructional guides.
- Joining and taking leadership roles in professional organizations.
Think outside the box . . . or bottle
Let’s go back to the beer and my other creative (or as my wife would say, crazy) ideas. Though there is definitely the risk of being too “gimmicky” in your networking approach, employing creativity and a sense of humor is often a wonderful way to build rapport.
The reason we’ve found the beer approach works is because the label not only looks cool but actually gives all the valuable information on Dr. Ammar that an optometrist would initially need to know—medical school, residency, fellowship, specialty, experience—as well as his philosophy of care. It stresses that he wants to treat your patients like his family members. Also, the beer was purchased from a local brewery demonstrating another element of community support.
Retaining relationships and relevant referrals
Remember as you build relationships, you will learn as much about the ODs as they do about you. This can be extremely helpful when treating the patients they refer. You will come to trust the diagnosis of certain doctors and feel secure that if they say there is a retinal detachment or retinal tear, that is what you are going to find and confirm. This ultimately leads to a more efficient referral system since you know these optometrists will not send you cases that are not relevant to your particular practice and vice versa.
Following the steps in this article will help you build relationships that lead to referrals. But, at the end of the day, being a good person and a great physician—to your patients and to other doctors—is the key to securing and sustaining a strong referral network that will last throughout your career.