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Tips for Building a Client Referral Network

As a dietitian in private practice, launching your business is an exciting step in your career. Perhaps you’ve transitioned away from a clinical setting, outpatient or long-term care job, and now are officially seeing clients on your own time. At some point, you may find yourself scratching your head and asking, “who’s going to refer me clients?” Building up a referral network is an important part of growing and marketing your nutrition practice. Navigating doctor referrals can be challenging and disparaging. Gaining face-time with a doctor (or anyone in their office) can be a major barrier. 

For virtual dietitian Hailey Crean, MS RD CDE CSOWM, building up her nutrition practice has relied heavily on marketing her business to doctors, clinics and wellness systems. Her 11+ years of experience working in the clinical setting, pharmaceutical industry, and research taught her how to be persistent and patient when it comes to building up these professional relationships. Even more, Hailey learned how to think outside of the box when it comes to meeting and greeting doctors. 

Today, Hailey is sharing her tips on building a referral network for nutrition professionals, including: 

  • How to start building up your practice with doctors and their offices
  • Ways to get your foot in the door with clinics and offices
  • How to merge those conversations and introduce the topic of telehealth and telenutrition as a valuable service and add on service to their clinics and care 

Building a Referral Network in Nutrition Practice

Why is networking with doctors, and building up these channels of your referral network important? 

For me, this is about integrating with the traditional health care model and increasing awareness and utilization of telehealth for nutrition education and support.  I want primary care providers and endocrinologist to be aware of the benefits of offering nutrition counseling virtually and as a result, I want their patients to know it’s an option.  Not a replacement to the traditional outpatient model but an option for those that it’s a fit for.

Initially connecting with doctors: is it worth it to cold-call or visit the office in-person? 

I find it’s typically best to visit in person first. If I don’t know anyone to ask for personally I’ll ask to speak with the office manager. Very often no one is available to speak with me and that’s fine.  I have a packet prepared with my business cards, a few referral forms and a flyer about my practice. Once I walk out I’ll write down notes if I catch anyone’s name, that I way I can ask for them personally next time I stop by and it’s not quite as “cold” of a call.

I think it’s important not to take it as a rejection if no one is available to speak to me or not interested. These offices are busy and that’s understandable.  It can actually be a good thing if you think of the busier the office the more you have to offer them in terms of supporting their patients and providers.

What are some factors in your experience that help make it easier for you to connect with MDs?

There are a few factors that can really help as you build up your practice and referral network. These may not be the best fit for every dietitian, but have worked well for my with building my own nutrition practice: 

  1. Network and build relationships. I want to get to know the physician offices and learn about what their barriers are to referring for nutrition counseling. I dont present myself as competition to their current referral partners (if they have them) but instead as an additional tool for providers to help patients meet their goals and improve outcomes. I truly believe we are all working towards the same goal to help patients live healthier lives and my practice was founded to help provide the same level of quality while removing some of the barriers and inconveniences of the traditional model.
  2. Establish yourself as a credentialed expert in your field. My practice specializes in diabetes and metabolic syndrome and I find it helpful when talking with providers to share that I am a CDE. This is usually a credential they are familiar with which I believe helps build trust.
  3. Send thank-you notes for referrals. Whenever a client is referred to my practice, I always send a thank-you note to the referring provider. I think it’s important as a courtesy to let them know that I received the referral and have scheduled, met, not been able to contact, etc.  My hope is that is also a way to stay top-of-mind if they have additional patients that may benefit from nutrition counseling. 
  4. Accept insurance. When I established my private practice one of my primary goals was to help remove barrier to high quality evidenced-based nutrition education and support.  I made the decision to become an in-network provider and accept insurance to improve access to my services and remove some of the barriers around cost. I find when speaking with practices they are very interested in which plans I accept and coverage for services provided via telehealth.  

Building a Referral Network in Nutrition Practice

How did you connect with Quality Managers, and why pursue this relationship? 

I was at an exhibitor at a conference a while back. When I first launched the practice, I decided I would just buy a table and sit this primary care conference that was about primary care and diabetes. The person in the booth next to me was from a pharmaceutical company. She called on a lot of clinics and I ran into her at a different conference 6 months later and she had mentioned that this “network of clinics lost their diabetes education program and so she said if you stopped in there I can make an introduction. I’m sure they would love to have that resource.” It was built on a lot of different things. I do a lot of cold-calling and stopping into places but this was actually helpful because I had that warm introduction from someone at the clinic I already knew which was helpful.

After the warm introduction to one of the office managers I was able to start building a relationship with the clinic. During one stop in I was introduced to the nurse that oversees their Quality Managers at each clinic site. She thought some of the clinics might be interested in my services and invited me to speak at their upcoming meeting. It was a great opportunity to share some of the recent research and outcomes with telenutrition counseling and offer my services. Many weren’t aware that telenutrition counselling was available and it was very helpful to have some of the Healthie graphics to share more about how the process works. I was grateful for the opportunity to share more about my practice plus it was a nice way to get a warm introduction to expand my referral network for future visits.

What compelled you to establish your business as a virtual nutrition practice? 

After working in a traditional outpatient clinic for a number of years I became increasingly aware of the barriers to in-person clinic visits. The research shows us that more frequent touchpoints can help improve outcomes however it was difficult for patients to make it in for appointments.  Traffic, parking, weather, vacation schedules and time off work all became barriers to more frequent visits. In establishing my practice my goal was to make nutrition education and support more convenient and accessible to help clients reach their goals.

Why be in-network with insurance carriers if tele nutrition reimbursement is inconsistent?

I currently accept insurance because I think that it helps make my nutrition practice a little more accessible to be in-network. Not all plans offer it but at least I can call their plan to check for coverage and I feel I’m doing my best to make my services accessible to a wide range of clients. I am confident that coverage will continue to improve in the future. For now I still accept cash and flexible spending account for those who have plans that don’t cover it.

How do you introduce “telenutrition” when pitching your nutrition services to MDs?

That depends on the situation. Sometimes I’m just giving a very simple explanation of what telenutrition is and the general experience for both referring and on the patient side.  If I have more time I have a one-page sheet that summarizes some of the studies on telehealth and nutrition counseling. I use an evidence-based approach in nutrition counseling and the same applies for the method of education.  The field of telehealth and telenutrition is still very young but there is evidence to show its effectiveness.   

Any words of advice for dietitians who are feeling overwhelmed by finding new referral sources for their practice? 

Believe in what you are offering.  You are highly trained as dietitians and have a lot to offer your future clients. Once you have defined your ideal client, find out where they are and be there.  This will likely be several places so diversify your marketing to include physician offices, social media, local gyms, community events, etc. Remember why you started your practice and who you were trying to help.

To learn more about Hailey’s virtual practice, visit her website here.

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