The Importance of Good Communication with Referring Physicians

By V. Seenu Reddy, MD, MBA

April 13, 2018

Cardiothoracic surgery is, by and large, a referral specialty. Whether one practices in the adult cardiac, congenital, or general thoracic spheres of our specialty, the key source of patients is usually through referring physicians.

Referring physicians likely will be either cardiologists or pulmonologists. Occasionally, primary care physicians, oncologists, intensivists, or other specialists may refer patients directly. In any case, developing and carefully managing these relationships is paramount to a successful practice.

The key to developing a strong and loyal referral base starts with outreach. Outreach is the process by which a new or established cardiothoracic surgeon connects with potential referring physicians in their local, regional, and even broad geographic practice areas. 

Outreach can take many forms. Many practices send out an introductory letter or packet of information that outlines your background, education, practice areas of interest, and any special training or skills (e.g., valve surgery, VATS lobectomy, or single ventricle palliation). The letter also can mention new programs that your hospital is embarking upon (e.g., heart failure/VAD, robotic surgery, or minimally invasive procedures). The letter should explain how to get in touch with you and include a link to your practice website for additional information.

The key to developing a strong and loyal referral base starts with outreach.

No amount of mailings, however, can substitute for a direct visit with a potential referring physician. You can schedule a 15-minute meeting during the day or something during lunch or dinner. The visit can be casual, or you can make a formal presentation to the entire group or practice (including nurse practitioners and physician assistants). During that meeting, you should recap your training and background, as well as look for common areas of interest that will create some affinity to use you as the go-to physician for their patients. Perhaps you trained at the same place they did or are from the same area of the country. Perhaps you share similar hobbies or interests that you can talk about at the end of patient referral conversations. All of these common bonds will strengthen your referral relationship.

Finally, it's important to establish preferred lines of communication. Does the referring physician want a phone call after you operate on one of his/her patients? Does he/she prefer an email or text message instead? How about a copy of the operative notes or just a letter dictated during the postoperative follow-up appointment? Perhaps some will want all of the above. In any case, it is critically important to both understand and comply with the manner in which referring physicians want their communication. 

The foundation of a good referring relationship is consistent, complete communication in the manner in which the referrer wants it. The other key element is to make sure you tell your patients and the referring physician how thankful you are for the opportunity and privilege to participate in their care. Great outcomes, great care, and great service to patients and their referring physicians are the foundations of a successful practice.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Society of Thoracic Surgeons.