How Much Influence Do Referring Physicians Really Have?

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October 15, 2015 by meliorgroup

A patient goes to their primary care physician (PCP) for a new medical problem. The PCP believes that the patient should go to see a specialist. What happens next?

The Results Can Be Confusing

The Melior Group conducts numerous studies for hospital clients who have a vested interest in understanding how referrals are made. The results these studies generate, however, can be confusing. On the one hand, the majority of PCPs tell us that they always make specialist recommendations, and that their patients “almost always go where I recommend.” Yet on the other hand, patients tell us that their physicians are only one source among many (friends and family, internet research, etc.) of information about which specialists to use for a given problem.

What’s Really Going On?

After years of conducting qualitative and quantitative research for healthcare clients who want to insure that their institutions, and the physicians affiliated with them, receive their fair share of recommendations, we think we have an answer. Despite the apparent contradiction of what consumers and physicians say about selecting specialists, they are both right.

Defining the Decision-Set

Our work for several specialty hospitals and academic medical centers reveals that in the vast majority of situations, referring physicians provide one or several names of specialists for their patients to consider. In so doing, they provide the “decision-set.” Patients, in turn, use that list as a starting point: they might ask their friends and family (sometimes using social media) to learn what others think of the specialist(s), and they also might conduct some internet research to… learn about the specialist’s education, length of time in practice, etc.; see a picture (does he/she look friendly?); and/or read online reviews. Information gleaned during this process informs the ultimate action: the call to make an appointment, which is entirely in the consumer’s hands.

Using Information Developed from Research to Inform Physician Referral Strategies

There are a number of steps that specialty providers can take to insure that…

1) their physicians are included on the referring physician’s list of recommended providers; and

2) consumers ultimately select one of these recommended providers.

Such strategies can be informed by market research. For example, an evaluation of the referral mechanics of referring physicians can guide development of documentation, work flow, and referral forms: How – in writing or verbally, with pre-printed or handwritten information – do referring physicians prefer to give names of specialists? How, and how frequently, do they want to receive communications about individual patients that they have referred? On the consumer side, knowing what they expect can provide guidance for website development (what kind of information should be available about individual specialists), search engine optimization, social media presence, and overall positioning and messaging strategy about specialty physicians and services. In sum, understanding more about existing referral dynamics can inform both marketing strategy and tactical solutions for building referrals.


For over 30 years, Melior has specialized in conducting market research on behalf of hospitals and health care systems.

For more information please contact Elizabeth Cohen at lcohen@meliorgroup.com or (215) 545-0054 ext. 103.

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