Sharing a Philosophy: The Key to a Successful Referral Relationship

Sharing a Philosophy: The Key to a Successful Referral Relationship

We’ve all been to seminars where a lecturer throws up a Power Point slide depicting the 3 corners of a triangle, with some anecdote about the “team approach” to patient care. As much as our eyes glaze over at the simplicity of such a diagram, there is great accuracy with which it displays the key components of a successful referral relationship:


The patient is most important because delivering on the patient’s desires is what keeps us in business.  Caring for the patient first and foremost is also what allows us to sleep at night and gives us a genuine sense of pride in what we do.  Notice that the referring dentist and oral surgeon are partners with an equal level of communication, both working in tandem to meet the patient’s needs.  This is a conscious, healthy relationship.  A dysfunctional way that this relationship can occur is in a linear fashion.


Here, the referring dentist hands the patient a written referral and sends her on her way.  She finds her way to an oral surgeon, has her treatment completed and finds her way back to the referring dentist.  Communication between the dentist and the surgeon is lacking, if not non-existent.  Yet, there is still an unspoken expectation that the surgeon is at the top of the hierarchy and will satisfy the needs of both the patient and dentist.  And when things go wrong, assigning blame takes the place of finding team-guided solutions.  This is an unconscious, uncooperative relationship.

Too often the dysfunctional linear referral relationship occurs in the real world, rather than the cooperative triangular one.  When it comes to referring patients, the referring dentist and oral surgeon should both feel comfortable with the rapport they have with each other.  This means being able to communicate openly and sharing the same underlying philosophy when it comes to patient care.  It goes without saying that dealing with patients honestly and making quality the highest priority are two tenets that both team members should have for the relationship to be successful long-term.

When communication becomes tedious or seems unnecessary, or when a few too many negative outcomes have occurred, it’s tempting to avoid the grind of a cooperative referral relationship and pursue a quick, flashy affair instead.  The proverbial Ashley Madison of the oral surgery world comes packaged as a stack of coupons to hand out to patients, an invite-only theme party with drinks and prizes, or even exclusive membership in a fabricated dental fellowship organization promising free advertising and continuing education.  This air-brushed, silicone-injected centerfold, though, may not share your same philosophy of patient care.

Some oral surgeons follow the model of quantity over quality, choosing a volume-centered practice over a patient-centered practice.   Unfortunately, the less-than-golden handcuffs of in-network provider status may leave a surgeon with little choice but to double-book patients, shorten procedure times and squeeze extra patients into an already busy schedule.  Communication may become limited and the patient care philosophy may then be altered in accommodation.  Surgeons not shackled to an insurance contract are free to focus on individual patients rather than volume, allowing more time for dialogue both face-to-face with the patient and with the referring dentist.  This also allows the surgeon to charge fair fees for services, while concentrating on what’s best for each patient without reservation.

Patients ultimately put their faith not only in their general dentist, but also in the oral surgeon whom their dentist refers them to.  If you’ve ever asked yourself, “What should I do in this patient situation?”  You should next ask yourself, “If it were my parent, my spouse or my child, what would I do?”  And there you’ll find the right answer.  Do you know how your oral surgeon would answer this question?

Knowing that both their general dentist and oral surgeon are working hand-in-hand to meet their needs by communicating honestly and valuing quality, patients are reassured that they’re being taken care of.  This shared philosophy ultimately leads to better patient outcomes.  And, as you reflect on this reality, if your referral relationship ever feels all one-sided or “too good to be true,” chances are that it is.  And, in the end, your affair will be fleeting, but you’ll still be left with the patients who came along for the ride and are affected by the decisions you’ve made, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health….