Dont ask for referrals - recommend!

Most dentists and staff members hate asking for referrals. It`s not something that comes up naturally in conversation. To many of us, asking for referrals sounds like begging. Brian, a West Coast client, summed up this attitude well when he told me, "I`m uncomfortable asking my patients for referrals. I don`t know what to say - or how to say it - and I don`t want to sound like I need patients!"

Paul Homoly, DDS

"Knock knock."

"Who`s there?"

"Howdy."

"Howdy who?"

"Howdy get referrals without feeling like a beggar?"

Most dentists and staff members hate asking for referrals. It`s not something that comes up naturally in conversation. To many of us, asking for referrals sounds like begging. Brian, a West Coast client, summed up this attitude well when he told me, "I`m uncomfortable asking my patients for referrals. I don`t know what to say - or how to say it - and I don`t want to sound like I need patients!"

Patient referrals are an obstacle for most of us. But like many obstacles we face, this one has an opportunity within that is just knocking to get out. If you or your staff feels like Brian, then here`s a great opportunity for you - quit asking for referrals and start recommending them. Here`s how!

"Gum Disease Linked to Heart Illness" said the headline of a story in a February 1998 issue of USA Today. The article was based on research done at the University of Minnesota and reported by Mark Herzberg to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The study linked systemic diseases - i.e., cardiovascular disease, diabetes, premature birth - to periodontal disease. We all know the oral manifestations of systemic diseases. Since this article was written, we now know that the reverse can be true - poor oral health can lead to poor overall health.

The link between poor oral health and poor overall health creates the opportunity to quit asking for referrals and to start recommending them. For example, your new patient is 57 years old, has a history of heart disease, and has moderate periodontal disease. In all probability, he has family members or relatives with a similar medical and dental history. After building a relationship with this patient, you can have a dialogue like this:

"Mr. Chambers, are you aware that gum disease can aggravate heart disease?"

"No, doctor, I didn`t know that."

"Yes, it can, and the problem is that gum disease often goes unnoticed. You can have it ... and if you have a history of heart problems, it can aggravate a bad heart. Do you have any family members or relatives with heart disease?"

"Both of my brothers have heart problems."

"Are your brothers being seen by a dentist regularly to monitor their gum health?"

"I don`t think so. You know, nobody likes going to the dentist."

"I understand. Here`s my recommendation. Have your brothers call this office and we`ll do a gum health-screening examination for them. You`ll be doing them a big favor if they have gum disease, but don`t know it."

Recommending a referral on preventative health issues is much higher on the therapeutic playing field than are personal appeals. Dentist and staff are much more comfortable and skilled with the language of the therapeutic approach. Moreover, we offer patients something of high value in return for their referrals: We offer them the opportunity to truly help their loved ones, which beats the traditional token flowers and thank-you cards for referral behavior!

Here`s what to do if you`re interested in recommending referrals.

(1) Read the studies linking periodontal disease to systemic health.

(2) Get reprints of the USA Today article (February 17, 1998). Display it in your consultation area and create patient education flyers on the topic.

(3) Practice recommending referrals in role-play situations.

(4) Alert your local medical society. Offer an article for the society`s newsletter or offer to do a presentation on the subject at one of the group`s meetings.

The opportunity for patient referrals using a therapeutic approach to recommending referrals is enormous. By finding important, urgent, and real reasons for patients to refer to you, you`ll soon stop asking for referrals and begin recommending them.

Dr. Homoly is author of Dentists: An Endangered Species - A Survival Guide for Fee-for-Service Care. He has practiced restorative dentistry for 20 years. He is president of Innovative Practice Solutions, helping thousands of dentists implement reconstructive dentistry through his hundreds of continuing-education workshops and seminars. Dr. Homoly can be reached at (704) 342-4900 or via e-mail at phomoly@mindspring.com.

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