Hospital Impact—Social media can help providers build stronger referral networks

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Many physicians don’t have the time to fully research the different areas of clinical expertise that reside in their own extended communities.
Peter Alperin, M.D.

As the healthcare world has become more complex and the requirements on a physician’s time more onerous, the seemingly routine task of medical referrals has gotten to be increasingly challenging.

Medical communities, even in large U.S. cities, used to be fairly cohesive. But population growth matched with the rise of large-scale healthcare systems has fostered an environment where it’s harder than ever for doctors to refer based on personal relationships.

Moreover, physicians don’t have the time to fully research the different areas of clinical expertise that reside in their own extended communities, which can lead to patients traveling elsewhere unnecessarily. Similarly, hospital executives are always seeking solutions to more efficiently communicate the care options patients have close to home.

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So, what can different providers do to ensure that physicians in their own areas of practice are aware of their service?

1. Talk doctor-to-doctor: Physicians are busy but open to hearing from their peers, especially when it comes to the care of their patients. New services available through online physician networks are strengthening physician referral networks by enlisting physicians as brand ambassadors. For example, Louisiana-based Ochsner Health System selected physicians from a broad range of specialties to serve as liaisons for a referral campaign, which allowed the system to reach a highly targeted group of potential referral sources without having to make a phone call or enter a physician’s office.

2. Tailor to your audience: Choose content that is highly relevant to your audience. Ochsner developed personalized quarterly messages with each physician in the program, highlighting clinical expertise, new procedures, recent publications, upcoming presentations, and other items of interest. Ochsner then matched its messages to the most appropriate local physicians, based on clinical background, social connections, geography, board certification and hospital affiliation.

3. Keep it real: While it’s nice to share the latest awards your institution has won, most physicians would prefer to hear about clinical services that are available to patients. Share information on why you’re providing the best possible care—and the reasons why you won awards. Also, remember that your message will most likely be read on a mobile device and always include your mobile number. This will also give you a direct peer-to-peer connection to other physicians.

In the first year of this approach, Ochsner saw referrals from more than 50 new physicians, among those a liver transplant and a complex heart valve procedure, and they came from regions that historically had not referred many patients. The success wasn’t specific to any specialty; Ochsner experienced a similar boost in referral rates across all service lines.

For example, the medical director of the Multi-Organ Transplant Institute at Ochsner sent outreach messages to local physicians and connected with one doctor who was not previously aware of his expertise. Within a few months, this doctor had a tough transplant evaluation, which she sent to Ochsner immediately.

An added benefit was that Ochsner’s physician community became more socially engaged with its brand. Ochsner saw open rates of 47% with direct messaging and connection rates of 29%, consistent with best practices from across the country. Growing its physician social network allowed Ochsner physicians to engage more organically with its community by sharing news, publications, and content from their institutions.

Medicine is a team sport. Ultimately, partnerships like this allow physicians to share their expertise and help patients connect to the best treatments available, which is a win for both physician collaboration and patient outcomes.

Peter Alperin, M.D., is vice president of connectivity solutions at Doximity, the largest secure medical network, with more than 70% of all U.S. physicians as members.