Beyond Physician Employment: Growing Referral Streams With Physician Liaisons

The trend of hospitals and health systems acquiring physician practices and employing physicians has surged in popularity recently. The nation's ranks of independent physicians shrunk from being 57 percent of physicians in 2000 to just 39 percent in 2012 and is projected to further drop to 36 percent this year, according to data from Accenture, illustrating major growth in the number of employed physicians.

While having employed physicians is attractive because employed physicians can provide a solid referral — and patient — base, employment does not always lead to in-network referrals. "[Organizations] think that just because the physicians are employed, they will refer all of their business to the hospital," says Bricken McKenzie, MBA, FACHE, FACMPE, the CEO of AdvisorsMD, a healthcare consulting firm, but he says that is not always the case. In fact, some employed primary care physicians may not know all of the specialists a network has to offer.

"You have to get out and educate the referral sources," Mr. McKenzie says, to try to ensure the organization's specialists are on the receiving end of referrals. "You want that physician to have a good understanding of where a patient should go; you don't want them to have to guess about it."

One way to effectively educate and communicate with physicians is by utilizing a physician liaison. For example, Mr. McKenzie says he worked with a hospital with a subspecialist who was not getting many patients. "We went…to educate physicians on [that] particular subspecialist, and only half of them knew who he was," he says. "And they were in the same network employed by the same people." In that case, using a physician liaison led to an increase in referrals simply by telling physicians the subspecialist was available.

Further benefits

Beyond informing referral sources about specialists and service lines, physician liaisons can work with both the referring physicians and the hospital or health system's staff and specialists to root out and fix any issues that may be inhibiting referrals.

By talking with referring physicians, liaisons can discover why some physicians are not referring business to their facility. For example, one employed physician stopped referring patients in-network because the hospital's lab did not provide non-fasting lipid panels, according to Mr. McKenzie. "The physician liaison was able to talk with the lab, make some adjustments in the lab area, follow up with the physician and reopen that referral channel," he says.

Additionally, physician liaisons can help improve patient experience at the hospital or system. Some primary care physicians may not be referring patients to a facility because their patients have had bad experiences there in the past with rude staff or physicians. "If you have a physician liaison, you will hear about those issues from the primary care physician," Mr. McKenzie explains, and the liaison can then work with the facility to rectify those problems.

What makes a good physician liaison

Hospitals and health systems looking to build or grow its physician liaison base should be on the lookout for the following traits in physician liaisons, according to Mr. McKenzie:

A sales background. After all, a liaison is essentially selling physicians on their organization's service lines and specialists.
Communication skills. A physician liaison is constantly communicating and should feel comfortable talking with staff, physicians and executives alike.
A diplomatic demeanor. A good liaison needs to be able approach an unhappy party and correct the issue while damaging as few egos as possible.
Clinical knowledge. Though it is not critical, Mr. McKenzie says it is helpful for a liaison to have some clinical background in order to better explain hospital service lines.

More Articles on Physician Relationships:

4 Obstacles Specialists Face When Networking With Referring Physicians
Managing Physician Relationships in an Accountable Care Model

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