Every client a counselor sees offers a potential opportunity to expand a private practice. The obvious way is for a satisfied client to recommend you to others. Another way to expand your practice is through what we call “cross-pollination.” Just as it is beneficial for plants to share pollen, it is beneficial for therapists and other professionals to share information. Of course, this is done with all release of information requirements met. When a client reviews the “client’s rights” document given at the first appointment, he or she signs a release. With this release is a “coordination of treatment” document that asks the client to allow you to contact his or her primary care physician. Check your state’s practice guidelines…in many states, therapists are required to ask the client’s permission to contact the primary care physician (PCP). In addition, many managed health care panels mandate that you contact the PCP. Whenever you make a coordination-of-treatment contact, it is a marketing opportunity. Clients’ doctors are often in need of referral sources for their patients; it might as well be you! These contacts are a professional and ethical responsibility, and they provide conduits to help you market your practice.
When the referral is from a physician, send a thank-you letter and your well-written brochure or business card, along with basic clinical information for the patient’s chart. A follow-up call to discuss the client is helpful for coordination of treatment and is also a way for the physician to hear, or perhaps even see, how good a clinician you are. Take the opportunity to drop off lunch to the staff. They work hard and you will be on their minds whenever a patient needs a referral to a therapist.
If the client is a student with educational issues, it is an excellent idea to call the counselor, social worker, or special education coordinator at the school to ask for input in your treatment planning. We even recommend asking the student’s family to invite you to the student’s individual education plan (IEP) or annual review. Act as an observer at these meetings, giving input only when asked. Leaving your brochure or business card is almost always welcome. Schools look for competent therapists when they wish to refer outside the district. Most schools have a list of good clinicians; you want to be on that list. Introducing yourself to the schools may earn you an invitation to speak at teacher institutes, PTA meetings or district parent education fairs. We have also been asked to keynote the beginning-of-the-year teacher institute gathering. We were contacted afterward by teachers for personal and marital counseling.
If the school refers a student with medical issues, (ie: ADD, anxiety) and the family has signed the coordination of treatment document, it is wise to contact the physician with a letter or call. This is a courtesy contact to let the doctor know how you are helping their patient with ADD, anxiety, or other mental health issues.
If your niche is working with adults, obtain client permission to contact the internist, gynecologist or other specialist. The fear that we are irritating the doctor is usually unfounded. Doctors spend an average of about seven minutes with patients, and most MDs welcome a therapist ally. Once again, when another patient needs a therapist, you, the competent professional, will come to mind. It is a thoughtful and professional gesture to visit your clients who have been hospitalized by a psychiatrist. Most MDs will write orders in the patient’s chart that allow the outside therapist to visit. When signing in at the front desk, ask if you can drop off your cards or brochures. We have had many clients referred to us for outpatient treatment upon discharge from the hospital because the hospital personnel saw that we were competent and professional.
Use cross-pollination when you receive a referral from a friend of a client, a managed care company or an EAP, Make sure you coordinate with physicians, schools, and even lawyers when appropriate, and remember that ethics require you to always have a client release.
The goal of marketing is to help people as well as to build your practice. A small, limited practice can grow rapidly using the cross-pollination method of marketing. One of the most encouraging comments we ever received was when a new client said, “I was given your name by our school, and the next day our pediatrician gave us your card. With those two referrals, we feel pretty good about coming to see you.”
Norm Dasenbrook and Bob Walsh are counselors in private practice, consultants, and authors (www.counseling-privatepractice.com)