How to build an international referral network

Medical travel continues to grow, either outbound, inbound or domestic, and there are many reasons why doctors should be paying attention. The industry still has a way to go before it becomes universally acceptedpricing is not transparent, and the business models are not defined or consistent.

Doctors, hospitals and countries are hungry for referrals. Unfortunatley, most have a “build it and they’ll come” approach and fail. Others take a more measured approach in an effort to create a branding strategy that will separate them from the pack.

Medical travelers get to destinations by learning about them on sites created for direct to patient interaction. Others, less frequently, get a referral or information from their doctor at home. Like all doctor to doctor referrals, there are steps to make it happen correctly:

1. Referrals are based on trust that must be earned and built over time. Get feedback and measure the results to assure continuity and coordination of care.

2. Referrals are the result of robust referral networks that satisfy the needs of the patient first and the sender (referral source) and receiver (consultant) second. Develop robust networks and create educational or support networks to help them grow.

3. Referral leaks i.e. the follow up appointment does not happen the way it is supposed to, happens often. Some estimate it occurs almost 50% of the time. Standardize the process.

4. Systems need to be in place to be sure that the baton does not get dropped in the handoff. Create a referral management and tracking system.

5. Identifying referral sources and destinations happens intentionally, like seeking the best expert in a  given field or technology, or accidentally, like meeting a foreign colleague at a medical meeting or while you are on vacation. Be open to collaboration even when it happens most unexpectantly.

6. All doctors like to think they are referring their patients to 
“the best”. The fact is that in most instances, there is no objective way or  evidence to support that notion. Most of the time referrals are based on word of mouth or second hand information. Try to get as much information as  you can.

7. Different patients want different things from different doctors and very few can or should be all things to all patients. One size does not fit all so most doctors have a portfolio of consultants. In many instances, it is not the doctor that actually chooses a particular consultant, but rather the front office staff. A lot of patients who want a second opinion want a second doctor. Find out why.

8. A relationship is a two way exchange. Explore each other’s needs, clarify expectations and create relationships that are win-win. Why should I send you my patient?

9. Do not hesitate to end referral relationships that don’t deliver and be up front about issues that occur.

10. When a referral is made, both the reputation of the sender and the receiver is on the line. Be sure to have an online reputation management strategy.

Most  US doctors recoil when they get requests from patients to send them overseas for care. With supportive and trusted referral relationships, however, the sender, the consultant, the third party intermediaries and the patient get the value and the care they deserve.

Arlen Meyers, MD, MBA is the President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs and President of  He contributes and