3 Ways to Improve Your Specialist Referrals


When treatment options extend beyond the dentist’s skill and comfort level, a referral to a specialist is often made.  And with today’s options of implant-retained dentures and other multi-disciplinary plans, having strong referral relationships is valuable to any general dentist.  All too often, though, these referred patients are ill-prepared for what happens in a specialist’s office and this leads to confused dentists, frustrated specialists, and worse, disillusioned patients who don’t get the necessary care because they don’t understand it.

Recently, I was having lunch with Katie Zachardy, office manager and professional relations coordinator, of The Institute for Jaw and Facial Surgery in Akron, OH and we got to talking about the challenges of GP and specialist relationships.  Zachardy manages two locations with two oral surgeons and one periodontist, and has been in the business for 13 years.  They were the first oral surgery practice in Ohio to have a periodontist on staff.  Suffice it to say, she’s seen her share of successes and failures with referrals.  This led to our discussion of how dentists can improve their relationships with any specialist, not just oral surgeons, which in turn can improve patient treatment and acceptance.

Here’s what she shared:

  1. Be specific with your referral ~ the most common referral slip says “evaluate and treat tooth #12” and it’s the most unhelpful way to introduce a referred patient. Specialists aren’t mind readers and when there are multiple treatment options possible, they need to know what you, the GP are thinking, and what you’ve discussed with the patient. Will this tooth need to be restored or can it be extracted?  Is this the first step in a more complex treatment plan? What does the patient already know about the process?

Zachardy suggests being concise and specific on the referral slip to improve communication.  “This minimizes our need to call the referring office, interrupt the doctor and ask more questions,” she says.  “For example, ’evaluate and treat #12 for restoration and possible inclusion for 3-unit bridge’ or ‘evaluate and extract #12 to place implant. Patient educated on options and recovery’ are much better instructions and provide guidance on the GP’s treatment plan for us.”  There may still be questions, Zachardy admits, but she’d much rather see too much information than not enough.  And if you’re not sure what to write, “Call us,“ says Zachardy, “that’s what we’re here for.”

  1. Invest time in educating administrative and clinical teams with referral relationships. “The more educated the team is when referring a patient, the better the experience and outcome for the patient and the better the relationship between GP and specialist,” explains Zachardy.  She suggests having lunch and learns with the specialist’s team or having the GP’s team spend time in the specialist’s office to experience firsthand the systems and processes that occur when the patient is referred out.

By having your clinical team (who are usually in the room when the diagnosis and referral are made) become familiar with the referral process and what to expect AND by having the admin team (who typically hand the patients the referral slip and get the phone calls later with questions) familiar with what occurs in the specialist’s office when a referral is made, the results turn into smoother referrals, greater patient satisfaction and less interruptions for both practices.

  1. Set realistic expectations with patients. I think we can all agree that referring a patient to an oral surgeon for implant evaluation with just a periapical radiograph isn’t going to provide the appropriate diagnostic data.  Many times, patients are sent to specialists without a clue of what’s involved in the specialist’s care.  This creates challenges for the specialist’s office to spend time with the patient to educate them and explain why further diagnostic tests are necessary.  Sometimes, it also means having the financial conversation about additional treatment fees that the GP may not have mentioned.  This is not the best way to set the patient or the specialist up for success with treatment acceptance.

“We’re doing comprehensive care with patients, and many times, they are complex cases spanning many months,” explains Zachardy.  “But no matter how simple or complex the case may be, it’s important that we have the GP’s participation in the partnership.”

One way some of her best referring dentists prepare their patients is by using 3D models, animated presentations and covering the potential investment.  “Educated patients are the best patients,” says Zachardy, “and when they come in saying this is the type of implant they want and  they already know it’s going to take x amount of months to heal and restore, it’s music to our ears.”

It can also mean the difference between a 15 minute consultation versus a 45 minute one. “And when you’re seeing 55 patients a day and scheduling three doctors, it can make a real impact on how the day runs and how production is managed,” Zachardy emphasizes.

So the next time you’re ready to refer a patient to a specialist, think about these three ways to improve that referral.  You care enough to make the referral, so invest in educating your team and your patients on what to expect.  Higher treatment plan acceptance is a triple win for everyone – for the dentist, for the specialist and most importantly, for the patient.

Need help with strengthening your referral relationships?  Click Contact Me and I’ll share more ways you can get started today.

Robyn Reis

Robyn Reis

Robyn began her dental career in 1998 as a marketing and communications director for a large group practice, and instantly fell in love with the world of dentistry. She has spent every waking moment since learning, growing and collaborating with dentists and their teams utilizing her expertise in all aspects of dental practice management, marketing, communications, HR, continuing education, and laboratory sales. Robyn's personal goals are to make a difference in someone's life every single day and to give the best of herself to those around her. Robyn and her family live and play in Northeast Ohio.