Physician Relations: The 12th Man in Physician Engagement

By: Kriss Barlow, RN, MBA

[box]In healthcare the days of business as usual are over. – Harvard Business Review. (Porter and Lee)[/box]

Refuse to succumb to the notion that physician engagement does not fit within the scope of a physician relations strategy.  Field staff, who work directly with physicians and the practice, are in the ideal position to provide insights from the practice perspective and to understand communication from both the doctor and entity. As your organization delves more fully into engagement, consider four ways you can support the effort and add value for everyone.

1.       Define shared values

A building block for the engagement platform is shared values with the doctor and entity working to define the intersection. While clinical integration and population health is on everyone’s minds, depending on current trust factors, success with another area first may ultimately speed the process for the bigger fish. Start small; begin, perhaps, with a payer contract or a business strategy.

Physician relations staff can use conversations with the doctor to determine their business agendas. Assuming the leaders are interested in visiting the practices, they will need to understand history, including style and approach, as well as what works in the practice. The physician relations staff can also trial balloon ideas and concepts for engagement in a safe, non-threatening way. The field staff can share the direct and indirect learnings, priorities, concerns and competitive insights.

 2.       Make the message matter

Engagement is not an act of doing this to or for the doctors; it must be done with them.  Field staff need to be very cognizant of word choice and staging. Pre-call planning has never been more important. Some phrases or approaches are discussion enders for the rep and the leaders, such as, “We’ve determined the best approach…” or “Let us help…” or “We’ve done the legwork…”  Engagement means collaboration in design of the right path. Process matters to doctors; they are best at working through process to arrive at a decision.

3.       Expose the hot spots

Likely there are tender areas for every party as they seek to engage more fully. The representative needs first to understand the entity’s no-go areas and then learn the doctors’ restricted areas.  It might be turf, dollars, control, competitive concerns, time frame or a host of other topics.  The representative needs to be prepared with great questions to learn the physician’s hot spots and the priority. Test if they are consistent across the group as there may be a host of different challenges.  They also need to be prepared to explain why they need this information and propose how it will be used.  The reminder: Don’t ask doctors for an opinion unless you plan to act on it.

4.       Build momentum

This topic comes up in all aspects of relationship strategy and sometimes well intended organizations function with more knee-jerk priorities, which is a real detriment to relationship building in general.  As we look at engagement, momentum to leverage a success and build on it will get the doctors and leaders into a rhythm of communication and deeper conversations about possibilities.  Conversation needs to become more real, robust and shared.  Issues like length of stay, payer mix and efficiency need to be discussed.  Momentum is that can-do attitude that gives both sides the drive to find a solution rather than pointing fingers. When things are going well, there is a desire to keep it moving.  Central to this is the need to ask questions like, “If I gather this, when can I share that we will move on it?” and “What if WE (the entity) drop the ball with this? Are we prepared to halt the process and our momentum?”  It also requires a clear action plan that builds from small engagement initiatives to larger ones without gaps of time between. The field staff needs to be apprised of the process.  If you are not, ask to be.

If Physician Relations is out of the loop, what are the steps you need to take to earn the role and show how you can be an asset in the engagement process?  Make certain that leaders understand the current relationship you have with the practice.  Be proactive. Do your homework. Understand the business side of engagement. Start developing better dialogue, better questions and less tell-and-sell messages. Engagement needs physician relations representatives; let’s go get what is ours.