Relationship Building


5 steps to cultivate physician referrals.

By Neil Trickett, PT

While the landscape of Physician-Owned Physical Therapy Services (POPTS) and hospital network referral development is always evolving, physician referrals are still a critical part of a physical therapy practice business. Without a steady stream of physician referrals, most physical therapy practices would have great difficulty operating. While we strive for more direct access referrals, physician relationships still play a major part of our new patient referrals—especially after surgical or complex diagnoses.

Therefore, how can we be more effective in cultivating physician referrals and growing our business? The first step is to recognize that not only is the physician/physical therapist relationship a medical one, it is also a business relationship. A single physician can refer hundreds of thousands of dollars in business to a physical therapy practice every year. The more we come to terms with this relationship, the more we can properly exchange and develop the respected relationship we all strive toward.

The ideal scene is to develop consistent referral relationships with a multitude of local physicians. Many practices concentrate on two to four core physicians and do not put much effort into cultivating more professional relationships. Therefore, greater than 25 percent of their business may come from a single source. If the physician decides to end the relationship for whatever reason, 25 percent of the physical therapy practice referrals dry up overnight. This is an unstable business position to be in.

Winning strategies to increase physician referrals to your practice:

1. Market to a large physician list. Focus your marketing on a large referral base of more than 200 physicians in your local area. Build a list of the physician, support personnel, and the referral coordinators of those practices. Ensure that marketing is consistently being sent to their offices at least every two weeks. Marketing should consist of direct mail, marketing materials to drop off in physicians’ offices, phone calls, and in-person meetings. Make your marketing educational and promote the successes of your patients for maximum interest.

A winning tip for making lunches work is to showcase your medical expertise. For example, ask the physician if they would like a presentation to the medical staff (nurses, medical assistants, etc.) on how to differentiate between a rotator cuff and impingement, or herniated disc versus sciatica. Make the presentation short and simple. It will give you the opportunity to make the most of the one-on-one lunch time, give something of value to the physician and staff, and elevate their perception of you as a medical professional to trust. This is most successful with primary care physicians.

2. Do not just focus on specialists. A vast majority of orthopedic and neurologists have their own rehabilitation services. This makes it more difficult to cultivate relationships. Focus on internal medicine, primary care, and family physicians who are on the front lines of musculoskeletal and neurological referrals. Many primary care physicians are unaware of the full services offered by physical therapy practices and when it is appropriate to refer. Focus your marketing to showcase when it is the right time to refer to physical therapy first.

3. Brand yourself professionally. Attract referrals, do not beg for them. Make sure your brand, marketing materials, and marketing personnel look professional. Your results should speak for themselves and so should your patients. Ensure your marketing strategies revolve around collecting testimonials and stories (with patient written permission), and then promote them widely with various media—both online and print.

Have a coordinated brand across your website, social media, and print marketing materials. Your message should be clear and reflect the good works that you do. Always approach your branding from the fact that most people know of physical therapy, but woefully misunderstand what it is we do. Help them understand why they should choose physical therapy first, without complex terminology.

4. Use the right sequence. In order to develop the most physician referrals, work on the correct sequence of public relations (PR), marketing, and then sales. Most efforts should be on PR, showcasing your patient testimonials, outcomes, and stories. The goal is to make your services well known and well thought of. Additional letters and reports should be sent back to the doctor with a brief synopsis on the overall patient subjective outcome. Encourage patients to call their physicians or follow up to thank the physician for referring them to you.

Marketing is how your message is conveyed and attracts people to you. Consistent high-quality direct mail brochures, newsletters, and letters, brand your practice professionally. Leave behind marketing materials and online sources to have a cohesive marketing message.

Sales is the actual action of visiting physicians to develop the relationship further and ask for patient referrals. Visits have to be done in volume, with the emphasis on discovering the true gatekeeper. This can be the referral coordinators, nurses, or office managers, who may dictate what physical therapy office the patient will be referred to.

5. Always follow up. Relationships take time to build and you are asking for a physician’s trust to refer to you and put their reputation on the line. Be consistent, be persistent, and be repetitive. Keep your message focused on results and how you are going to help that physician grow their reputation and business. Physicians need patient visits too, so make sure when appropriate, you can refer back to your local physicians. Send patients back for follow-up visits where appropriate and even ask patients to simply call their physician to thank them for referring them to physical therapy. After all, if you can help a physician build their patient base, this puts your practice in a winning referral business and medical relationship. A great opening question for developing physician referral relationships is asking the physician or gatekeeper: “What type of conditions can I refer to you?”

Developing physician relationships takes time, persistence, and hard work. However, it is a big part of your practice success. When done right with the steps described, you will be able to build more winning physician referral relationships.

Neil Trickett, PT, is a private practice marketing expert and CEO of Practice Promotions in Chesterfield, Virginia. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2018, Private Practice Section of the American Physical Therapy Association. All Rights Reserved.

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