Physician Relations: Learn IN the Field

By: Kriss Barlow, RN, MBA | kbarlow@barlowmccarthy.com

Physician relations teams spend a lot of time and attention learning FOR their field work. We focus on understanding the clinical offerings, new members of the medical staff, changes in process, schedules and what the service lines want us to tell the doctors. Much effort is devoted to preparing the message or developing questions for meeting with the doctor and practice. Preparation is essential, but learning does not stop there, it’s a dynamic process. For great field staff, almost equal time and effort is spent learning FROM the field. It’s patient and persistent attention to what’s said, what’s inferred and what’s observed that can make the difference. Consider these ideas and build your own ideas to ensure you are maximizing your field observations.

  1. “I spy with my little eye.” Clues to practice culture, financial strength and changes may be right in front of your eyes. We all observe the waiting room crowd. Make note of changes. If the areas used to be well maintained and are not so now, it may be an indication of tightening financials for the private group. If you see more and more materials from a competing facility it should grab your attention too. The power of observation is such a great tool. Pay attention and then consider whether it’s something to talk about with the practice members or just store in your brain.
  2. Really listen. Some people tend to listen so they can prepare their next statement. When we are new in the role, it’s easy to do this. With time and maturity, there is opportunity to listen better- to hear what is said, why they may be saying what they are and what they never seem to say. Be patient, let them tell you as they are ready but set the stage by listening and guiding the conversation.
  3. It’s chilly in here. The tone and temperature of the practice- both staff and doctor- are clues about your style, your organization’s perception or it can be an indication of internal change. Pay attention to changes in receptivity. Consider what has changed and factors that may have precipitated the negative climate. Determine whether to address, solve or ignore the issue based on smart business process.
    1. Let’s start with you. If you were warmly greeted in your first meetings and now you are not, don’t be afraid to get a little introspective. An example, “I used to get to meet with the doctor, now my only conversations are with the staff.” It may be a policy change, or it may be something about your early meeting(s).  Do an internal assessment of your style and approach to determine where things went south. Own it and create a plan to get back on track.
    2. My organization. At times business decisions, like aligning with another group or changing a compensation model aggravate the doctor, practice administrator, team or all the above. Evaluate what it is and then create a plan to address it or not. The strategy around this may be bigger than you so ask for internal support with the message or their presence at a meeting if you need it.
    3. Their practice. Sometimes the change of mood in a practice is because business or personal challenges become more transparent than they should. Be super sensitive to this and align your relationship strategy. It may be shift to doing only individual meetings, maybe you offer more choices that can be customized by individual, maybe you slow down a bit in your funnel management or maybe you just make sure to demonstrate the right level of empathy.
  4. Practices have a personality.  What’s the practice culture? How do they connect with each other? What do they use to learn new information? It’s the old “different strokes for different folks”. Observe and then test the tools in early conversations and it will allow you to customize your approach to match their style
  5. What can you infer about the team dynamics? Some practices are very hierarchical, others have a total team approach.  I was with a doctor last week who totally relied on her nurse to do all patient education. Is the doctor time-sensitive? Listen to the conversation to see if they are practice-inclusive and mention other partners or if the conversation is all about them. Use the same type of language when you talk about patients and services.

Observation coupled with a healthy intuition can teach us so much about the practices.  For some people this happens naturally, for others it requires special brain power. Weigh in and share your observations and the impact on your field success.

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