Special relationships

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referral relationshipsHow do specialist vets build up their referral networks? Developing and maintaining relationships is crucial, reports Sue Nelson.

The GP-specialist ALLIANCE is one of the most important relationships in healthcare. Not only is it vital to be able to communicate with and trust other healthcare professionals involved in the chain of care of your patients—if you’re a specialist, it’s crucial to know that you can count on that relationship for the health and continuity of your business. Referrals from GP vets keep specialist and emergency vets afloat.

“Our primary clients are GP vets,” says Rohan Lawson, general manager of the Melbourne Veterinary Specialist Centre (MVSC), who oversees the large specialist centre’s business operations. “Only specialists work at our practice, so we have to have access to primary carers as they are our number-one client base and we rely on them for our business. That relationship—particularly communications and feedback—is critical.”

In previous decades, the referral relationship between GPs and specialists may have had space to develop more organically. Typically, there would have been a friendship or an acquaintance that had grown out of the veterinary fraternity—through university or training, or a network that had been developed during the course of a career or learning path. These connections are still very important later on.

But in 2016, metropolitan areas around the country are, increasingly, home to high concentrations of specialist vets. The ratio of specialist-to-GP vets makes for a competitive environment. It’s important to stand out in the crowd.

“The first step is to make it easy for GP vets to refer to you,” says Yolanda Gerges, director of Identity Consulting, a company that specialises in healthcare marketing. “Consider software integrations such as online forms, easy referral buttons and the ability to upload supporting documentation. You should also consider having resource portals so that GPs can continue to trust you and see you as an expert in your area of specialisation.”

Promote the benefits of your practice directly to GPs. “At our centre we have a veterinary MRI machine—the only one owned by a private practice in Melbourne,” says Lawson. “We promote this to the GPs to ensure they’re aware that their patients can have same-day MRI scans if they come to us.

“It’s the same with advanced diagnostic imaging—we make sure we cover all of our technology through emails, seminars, newsletters, to make GPs aware of what we can do for their patients.”

Seminars, training and even informal get-togethers can all help GPs to see you as a leader in the field. “We offer a series of roundtables and four times a year we have a sit-down dinner,” says Rohan. “We invite our top-referring vets along, plus those who haven’t referred and those who don’t refer to us much.”

One of the things Lawson has done, that he believes has boosted GP referrals to the MVSC, is to create the role of ‘referral coordinator’ at the practice.

“It’s essentially a relationship coordinator, who has direct access to GPs at all times,” he says. “It is our aim to ensure that every metropolitan vet is visited. The person in this role discusses issues and concerns with the GPs and ensures clear communications.

Stacey Cooke started in the role in August and in that time she has visited 105 clinics. “As you can imagine it’s an intensely hands-on role and there’s much more to do,” Lawson says. “There are 700 GP vets across Victoria and 2,620 nationally.”

It’s a financial risk that Lawson—who brings business acumen to the practices he manages—was prepared to take. And it has paid off. “We’ve seen a clear growth in business since we took a new approach to referrals,” he says. “Melbourne is the most competitive specialist market in the country. We need a point of difference.”

Once you’ve got regular referring GPs on board, maintaining the relationship is the next challenge—communications with them must be cordial, clear and regular.

“Communicate with them in a timely fashion—you may need to customise your approach a little,” says Yolanda. “Find out how GPs like information sent to them. It’s also important to show your appreciation—don’t take referrals for granted. Thank your GPs now and then.”

“We’ve created referral guidelines to distribute to our referring vets,” says Lawson. This can assist them in the process and smooth communication about mutual patients.”

Rohan says the guidelines cover simple but important things like how the referral should be set out. “It’s also about managing expectations—MVSC is Victoria’s first multidisciplinary veterinary centre,” he says. “There are many different specialists working here. Our guidelines remind GPs to advise clients of the intended specialist. If this isn’t made clear it can waste time, as the patient’s owner doesn’t always know what the GP is referring the patient for. “We don’t want the GP losing confidence in us because of a breakdown in communication.”

Finally, while GPs might be your target market, it’s important not to forget about the real client—the patient. “Give your client, who is also your referring GP’s client, an exemplary experience. Show empathy—listen and take the time to understand. Keep them informed and make sure you follow up,” says Yolanda.

“When you delight the client they will advocate for you, which serves to strengthen the GP’s motivation to continue to refer them to you.”

Rohan agrees. “Educating the clients and the broader community helps them to nudge the vets to refer to us—the client’s wishes are, ultimately, what drives this relationship.”

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