Building a professional referral network is a skill that is crucial to just about every career path in medicine, but rarely is any time dedicated to it in our formal training. Retina specialists, however, often enter the field with an informal background in networking courtesy of research projects, residencies, fellowships, and society meetings. As such, many develop an essential referral base fairly early. But it is easy to forget that professional connections must be reinforced throughout one’s career. How do we maintain this network as the practices around us grow and evolve?
Having grown up where I currently practice, in Boulder, Colorado, I was able to forge many relationships based on my connections to the local community from childhood and young adulthood. It is not uncommon in my practice to see a patient who knows me or my family personally, and the same can be said for many of the referring physicians in the area. My experience as a hometown girl returning to her community, however, is not the standard for most retina specialists.
Those launching a new practice or expanding a practice into a new area must take steps to form a professional reputation within that community. This starts with reaching out to local ophthalmologists and optometrists for introductions. Once a relationship has been established, it becomes easier to maintain because there will be formal introductions to each new member of the practice and opportunities to move forward from there.
As for the many potential sources for possible referrals, I try to give every community practice equal time and treatment. Face-to-face meetings are invaluable, both as you form professional relationships and as you maintain them throughout your career. I make it a point to have lunch or dinner with each referring physician. Between these engagements, I reach out in other ways, such as an office visit or even a phone call.
Personal vs. Professional? Connecting on a professional level is similar to doing so on a personal level. You discover shared interests, hobbies, hometowns, etc., and these details add a layer of authenticity to the relationship. Be personable, be open to meeting new people, and be open to sharing your personality. A personal connection shows respect for your colleagues and demonstrates the treatment their patients will receive in your care.
But what about relationships that go the extra step from being friendly to actually being friends? Navigating social affiliations with referring physicians outside of work can be tricky, but as long as a high level of care is maintained by both parties these relationships can foster personal and professional growth.
As a retina practice grows, practitioners need to expand their pools of referring physicians. Hospital-sponsored meet-and-greets are an excellent way to grow your referral base among primary care providers and ophthalmologists. Speaking engagements provide opportunities to display your knowledge, skill set, and personality. Take full advantage.
It can be challenging to maintain a referral relationship with practices that seem to have a revolving staff of physicians. Although the networking process can go smoothly when a referring practice brings on a new hire, it can be difficult to maintain if these physicians cycle through the practice too often or too quickly. In these situations, I work to maintain a strong relationship with the senior partner or partners, and I do my best to carry this rapport down through the ranks.
Quality and Respect
Your success in generating referrals and expanding your professional network ultimately comes down to the quality of your treatment in terms of clinical outcomes and patient satisfaction. Whether you are part of a small practice or a large institution, your reputation is everything. It will help you to establish long-term relationships with referral sources in your area, and it will benefit you in the eyes of referred patients. Make yourself available to your referring physicians, keep them updated, and always be respectful to both your colleagues and your patients.