Managing Your Practice

How to develop a patient referral program


Here is how old I am: When I graduated from medical school in 1977, marketing was prohibited. It was the legal profession that challenged the ban on advertising by professionals, leading to a landmark Supreme Court decision (Bates v State Bar of Arizona, 1977), which opened the door to marketing in the legal and medical professions.

Since then, marketing has become a critical component of growing, sustaining, and supporting private medical practices. Strategies range from the basic Internet website through postings on the major social media sites, and occasionally to larger-budget campaigns involving local radio, television, or billboard advertising.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern, a dermatologist in Belleville, N.J.

Dr. Joseph S. Eastern

All these methods are effective, to varying degrees; but nothing provides as much benefit – relative to its comparatively low cost – as the original marketing tool, word-of-mouth patient referrals. According to one survey, a clear majority of Americans still consider word-of-mouth recommendations to be the most influential element driving purchase decisions. Of course, some of your new patients already come from such referrals; but you can get a lot more by actively encouraging your existing patients to sing your praises, rather than waiting for them to do it on their own.

Soliciting current patients for referrals does take a little planning, structure, and a basic understanding of exactly how patient referral programs work. When executed correctly, a patient referral program can add substantial growth to your practice at minimal cost.

Your first step, as with any new project, should be to identify your goals: Clearly define what kind of patients you are looking to attract. Do you want more patients for cosmetic procedures, medical treatment, skin cancer screenings, a specific diagnosis (such as psoriasis), or a general mix? Design your announcements, brochures, and other literature (more on that in a minute) with those goals in mind.

Next, identify any applicable federal or state laws that dictate what you can and cannot legally do to encourage such referrals. It might be tempting, for example, to offer discounts on future services for successful referrals; but some medical groups frown on it, some states prohibit it, and the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute makes it illegal to pay anyone to refer Medicare or Medicaid patients to you if you file a claim for your services. In my experience, most patients are happy to recommend someone whom they believe provides excellent care to a friend or relative without any sort of monetary incentive; but if you plan to offer a material reward of any kind, run it by your attorney first.

Once your legal ducks are in order, make patients aware that you are accepting new patients and would welcome referrals by posting notices to that effect around your office and on your website and social media pages. Outline exactly what sort of patients (based on your goals, above) you are looking for, how to refer someone, whom to contact, and what kind of information is needed. Make it clear why existing patients should refer someone to your practice. Remind them of your specialized training, advanced technology, and patient-focused approach to health care. Highlight the benefits of the program and encourage your patients to participate.

Before implementation, you will need to educate your employees about the referral program and its benefits. All staff members should understand the program and be able to answer basic questions about it from patients or referring professionals. Encourage staffers to actively promote the program during patient interactions.

Then, start making some decisions. How, specifically, will you be requesting referrals in the office? Many physicians are not comfortable asking patients themselves. If you are going to let your assistants or receptionists do it, you will need to write a script for them to follow. An example of a basic script might be, “If you are happy with the care you are receiving here, we would love for you to tell your friends and family about us.” Your staff can then hand out cards, brochures, or both to reinforce the message, and perhaps send a follow-up email to remind them.

A referral system isn’t worth the effort if you don’t know whether it is working. Establish a system to track and monitor referrals. This could be as simple as a spreadsheet or purchasing a more sophisticated software program. Ensure that you can accurately identify and credit the referring patients for their referrals.

Make sure to thank referring patients with a thank-you note or email. Expressing gratitude will encourage continued participation in the program.

A successful referral program does not happen overnight. It relies on providing exceptional patient care and building strong relationships with your existing patients. By implementing such a program, you can leverage the satisfaction and loyalty of your patients to attract new patients and grow your private practice.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at

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