Referrals for doctors

5 Key strategies to improve business through referrals for doctors

Table of Contents


One out of three patients are referred to a specialist, in the United States. The referral process in the healthcare industry is dependent on the health insurance plan of a patient and the primary healthcare providers (PCPs). Once it is established that the patient needs to see a specialist for their health issues, the PCPs provide referrals for doctors who specialize in treating specific health issues. Referrals for doctors are an important prerequisite for gaining more patients and establishing a practice.

What are referrals for doctors?

Referrals for doctors are written requests from the PCPs to another healthcare provider or service, who will be able to diagnose and treat the patient for a condition that is beyond the scope of PCPs expertise. The PCP will include information about health issues and the course of treatment to ensure that the doctor to whom the patient is being referred has their case history and is aware of the PCPs role in the patient’s treatment. Referrals for doctors are necessary for the patients to include the consultation under their insurance cover. A patient needs to take referrals for doctors in case of Health maintenance organization (HMO) plans and the point of sales (POS) plans. On the other hand, no referrals are needed for preferred provider organization (PPO) plans and exclusive provider organization (EPO) plans.

PCPs provide referrals for doctors when they believe that a patient’s case requires specialized expertise, diagnosis, and treatment, which is not their area of work. Medical referrals are provided to consult a specialist, undergo diagnostic imaging, or get pathology tests done. Referrals for doctors include patient case history and course of treatment, date of the referral, and signature of the practitioner, who is providing the medical referral.

Why are referrals for doctors important?

To grow a healthcare practice, referrals for doctors are an efficient way to showcase your specialization and acquire new patients. Although marketing strategies such as advertising, websites, blogs, emails, etc. have a broader outreach, these do not have a high conversion rate. On the contrary, getting referrals from PCPs and other doctors directly engages the patients to seek your services. Word-of-mouth referrals for doctors from existing patients also have the same impact, however, new patients cannot avail insurance benefits if the medical referral does not come from a healthcare practitioner.

There are several benefits of referrals for doctors. These factors significantly contribute to healthcare marketing and help in growing your practice by delivering a positive patient experience.

  • Conversion rate

Referrals for doctors ensure reduction in referral leakage i.e., patients leaving a practice’s network. This results in a higher conversion rate as patients trust their PCP to refer them to a specialist, who is equipped to take over the case.

  • Patient satisfaction

When giving referrals for doctors, the PCP makes sure that the new doctor is competent to provide the efficient treatment to the patient. Patient satisfaction and experience is of the utmost importance as it ensures that the patient will come back to them for any future problems.

  • Mutual growth

The PCPs have special care practitioners in their network that they prefer referring their patients to. When a patient is satisfied with their treatment, they recommend both the PCP and the specialist to other people. This leads to mutual growth for both the practitioners. 

  • Accountable care

Once a PCP provides referrals for doctors, their practice ensures timely assistance by making appointments on the behalf of patients. Since the PCP has an already existing relationship with the doctor they are referring the patient to, they are accountable for the patient’s further treatment.

Understanding the process of referrals for doctors

The process of referrals for doctors is initiated based on the condition of the patient, the expertise of the current physician, and the specialization of the doctor who will receive that referral. The collected data such as the patients’ electronic health records, their case history, and present health issues, help the PCP to decide why and when the patient needs to be referred to another physician for specialty care. Maximum cases that come into the healthcare system are taken care of by the PCPs, while the remaining need to be forwarded to specialists. Hence, the process of referrals for doctors is crucial as secondary care is expensive. The process includes the following steps;

  • Diagnosing the need for specialty care

The first step in recognizing the need for referrals for doctors is to diagnose the condition of the patient. There will also be times when a PCP may not be able to provide a proper diagnosis and refer the patient for specialty care. The primary physician diagnoses whether the patient requires treatment from a specialist or further diagnosis through advanced imaging or tests.

  • Informing patients

The healthcare providers have to keep the patient in the loop regarding the course of their treatment and the options available to them. Once the PCPs have recognized that a patient’s diagnosis is beyond the scope of their treatment and requires special care, they inform the patient that they should see a specialist and provide referrals for doctors. At times, the patients themselves request to be referred to a specialist for further treatment or a second opinion.

  • Writing down referrals

The PCP should begin by addressing the specialist and stating the purpose of the referral. They should also include up-to-date patient information, medical history, medications, allergies and the course of treatment. While writing the referrals for doctors, the current physician should provide the information necessary for the other healthcare provider to treat the patient properly.

  • Take-over by the new doctor

After referrals for doctors have been generated, the PCPs reach out to the specialist directly to inform them that a referral has been created and that the patient will be making an appointment soon. If the case is urgent, the PCP office can make the earliest appointment on behalf of the patient. The receiving physician should go through the referral letter to obtain and understand all the information about a patient to take the correct course of action. Since specialist referrals are made in fewer cases, the physician must ensure patient satisfaction.

Strategies for improving business through referrals for doctors

Receiving referrals for doctors is an essential step for the growth of a healthcare practice and several variables such as patient satisfaction and physician networking, affect its success. The following strategies can be used to improve your business through referrals for doctors;

  • Ensuring patient to patient medical referrals

Patients who have been satisfied by your services are the easiest medium to gain more patients. The healthcare provider can ask the existing patient to provide positive feedback through online reviews and testimonials, and promote the practice amongst their family and friends. Both word-of-mouth and online review-based promotions translate into leads. If the patient finds resolution for his health issues through your treatment, he or she will definitely recommend your services to others suffering from similar health problems. Patient to patient referrals are one of the oldest strategies to boost the business.

  • Meeting other doctors to create a referral network

It is essential to build relationships with other doctors, especially PCPs to create a referral network. If you are a new practitioner, it becomes mandatory to establish a connection with all the other doctors in the area. A referral network helps the specialists to acquire more patients as more and more PCPs will favor your practice if they know you well and trust your competence. Therefore, the primary doctors should be aware of your reputation to redirect a patient to your practice through referrals for doctors. There are several ways of reaching out to establish a relationship with fellow practitioners – phone calls, mail (both physical and digital), and social media. However, it is always best to meet the doctor face-to-face and revisit as often as needed. 

  • Creating referral agreements

Doctors can even sign referral agreements to ensure a smooth transition of patients from one practice to another. These agreements allow the specialist to obtain the electronic health records of a patient and follow-up from the last visit to the PCP. Contractual agreements also help in ensuring that a particular practitioner will keep sending patients your way. These contracts keep the providers compliant with the law, maintaining patient satisfaction and further, improving your business.

  •  Increasing your public presence

Reaching out to physicians alone will not get you more medical referrals. Hence, a medical practice should establish a public presence, either offline or online. To engage people offline, practitioners need to advertise their services through television and radio ads, and distribution of business cards and pamphlets at other healthcare practices. Referrals for doctors can also be obtained if a physician has been targeted with online marketing through emails and social media campaigns. A physician receiving newsletters and other promotional material is more likely to send patients to the advertising physician.

  • Availing physician referral services

The healthcare market is full of companies offering physician referral services. These businesses establish a direct connection between the primary physicians and specialists to expedite the process of referrals in healthcare. These services not only help in maintaining the healthcare referral system but also streamline and manage the patient referrals for doctors. Medical practitioners can avail physician referral services to save the time needed to follow up on incoming medical referrals.


A healthcare practice can significantly improve in terms of patient acquisition and reputation building by obtaining referrals for doctors. These medical referrals are only provided when the PCP feels that the patient’s case needs specialty care. Hence, doctors need to have good communication with primary practitioners in the area to become recipients of referrals in the healthcare industry. Referrals for doctors include information about a patient’s medical history and current health issues to allow the new doctor to smoothly take over the treatment course. 

Medical referrals are an integral part of the healthcare system as they improve a practice’s business by preventing patients from seeking treatment from a practitioner outside the PCP’s network, ensuring patient satisfaction through accountable care, and prioritizing appointments coming in through referrals. Thus, healthcare practitioners, especially the ones who are just starting out, should create a referral network, either through direct physician outreach or physician referral services, to improve their business prospects.

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