"Most patients assume that if they've got an ailment their family doctor can't fix, they'll be referred to a specialist who's, well, special for reasons they expect: ... So it may come as a surprise that the nattily dressed guy or gal sitting two chairs down in the waiting room, the one who brought that jumbo tin of caramel popcorn for the front-desk staff, may play a role in determining the next surgeon they see.
"With specialists' operating margins having fallen in the past decade and health care reforms putting increasing pressure on their bottom line, more are turning to this burgeoning group of marketing pros to open new-patient pipelines. For anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 a month, these so-called referral-development consultants will provide marketing plans and dispatch a "physician liaison" to pound the pavement and praise the doctors' prowess. The pitches can focus as much on waiting-room decor as on clinical credentials, but in the end, marketers say, they're sparing doctors the roadside-billboard approach to bringing in patients, and reshaping a long-ignored, but important component of doctoring. "I tell doctors how to sell their business without looking needy, cheesy, greedy or sleazy," says Stewart Gandolf, founding partner of Healthcare Success Strategies, a Southern California medical marketing firm, which says it helped double referrals for one Midwest ophthalmologist in a six-month period.