Building Trust Is the Key to a Successful Referral Program

Deb Roberge


After many years of coaching both general practitioners (GPs) and specialists, I have encountered two very common reasons why GPs often hesitate to refer to specialists. First, GP dentists don’t feel secure that they are kept updated on the treatment planned and performed. Second, they are often suspicious that the specialist might be tempted to perform treatments for which the patient should be returned to the GP for completion. 

Our Traditional Referral Process Needs Improvement

For many decades, the standard method for GPs to refer patients to specialists has been to simply provide the patient with a paper slip with the specialist’s office name, address, and contact number along with a short list of issues to be treated by the specialist. All too often, the referred patient never contacts the specialist to set an appointment or cancels without notifying the GP. This scenario is ineffective and counterproductive, and it may pose serious health risks.

If the patient does make an appointment, keeps it, and is treated, the GP often is not made aware as to what treatment the patient will receive, when it will occur, or when he or she may expect the patient to return for any necessary followup or restorative treatment. In other words, the referring dentist is in the dark.

If you think the traditional referral system is a windfall for specialists, think again. For example, the specialist’s administrative office is often besieged with phone calls from the GP’s office requesting the status of the referred patient. If these calls are not returned in a timely fashion, the GPs begin to wonder if the specialist will take control of the patient or administer procedures that the GP ideally should be performing and billing for once the specialist has performed the necessary specialty treatment. 

Very often, when a specialist and GP are working in collaboration in the best interest of the patient, they may be freely exchanging x-rays and other clinical images including the patient’s name using unsecured email. This is a very serious HIPAA violation, and it can result in large fines for each case if discovered by federal authorities.

Traditional Marketing to Referring GPs Is Not Effective  

In an effort to develop and maintain a robust pipeline of referred patients, most specialists currently employ some sort of outbound GP marketing. The most common methods for prospecting and acquiring new referrals include brochures, cold call walk-ins, cold phone calls, postal mailings, email blasts, social media, and websites.

These tactics are usually developed and deployed by the specialist’s internal team or outside marketing firm. The downside of internal marketing is that most internal dental teams are not qualified marketing professionals. Conversely, investing in professional marketing services can present challenges as well.

For example, if the marketing consultant or agency is not experienced in dentistry or in the specialist’s area of practice, there may be an expensive learning curve. Web and social media marketing consultants that specialize in dentistry often sell “off the rack” templates and syndicated content that may not be as unique as you would like, unless you are willing to pay more for custom work.

Despite the popularity of “cold” marketing tactics, which typically are performed by the specialist’s in-house team, they often are very ineffective. Unannounced or “cold” approaches to potential referral sources very rarely yield a significant positive response.

Administrative team members deal with so many contacts from random specialists and other sales calls that they usually either ignore them or simply add paper referral pads to a stack on the shelf. In reality, I’ve had a shocking number of administrative team members tell me that when they refer to a specialist, they actually just grab a slip from the first pad that they encounter in their stack. 

Another persistent issue is that when the specialist’s internal marketing coordinator contacts potential referral sources, the coordinator usually tracks the followup and status in paper binders or with sticky notes, which is obviously an unreliable and disorganized method. 

You can see why in too many general practices, there just isn’t a predominant incentive to consistently refer to a particular specialist. Very often, there is no glowing endorsement of the specialist because the trust factor is weak. 

The Intersection of Technology and Trust

What if GPs could view a simple report of the exact real-time treatment status of their referred patients, including the treatments performed and when they are completed, with a click? There are now methods for transmitting referral details via secure applications using the internet. These systems not only can send the information in a HIPAA-safe encrypted manner, but some also will notify the specialist when a referral has been submitted and from whom by text, email, or both.

Whether you handle your marketing in-house or use an outside firm to assist you with brand identity and content, the right technology could make your efforts more effective. Imagine if you were able to identify likely new referral sources by viewing all dentists within a certain radius of your office on a GPS-based map that included the offices’ web sites, locations, and other information. This would eliminate the time and expense of cold calls and shotgun snail mail and email campaigns. 

This technology solution has already been imagined and developed, and it is currently available for periodontists with modules for oral surgery, orthodontists, and other specialties in the pipeline. OurPerioTeam is a cloud-based system that provides the mapping as well as a customer management type of interface so your marketer can make notes and set reminders and ticklers for follow-up.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the referring GP and the specialist can view patient treatment progress in real time. The GP no longer has to chase after patient status or remain in the dark. The GP and specialist are effectively collaborating in the name of positive patient outcomes. By doing so, both have gained a happy patient who trusts their care team.

Why is this so important? Because at the end of the day, you can’t out-market or outspend a lack of trust.

Ms. Roberge has played an active role in dentistry for more than 40 years, working in virtually every area of a dental practice as well as owning a dental lab. In 1997, she created a dental-only placement agency that understands the special concerns related to team integration while supporting the employer and employee in proper hiring systems, interviewing techniques, and team retention. Her format was so well received by dentists in metro Phoenix that her methodology moved to a national level, creating a dental placement franchise system. Roberge is also the co-developer of OurPerioTeam, a cloud-based software platform specifically designed to help periodontists expand their referral networks, co-manage patients, and build trust among referring GP dentists. Contact her at or (520) 743-3350.

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