How to Create and Grow Referral Sources

 In Practice Building

Practice Building
Kristen McElveen, ND

One thing a doctor in private practice must always pursue is productive referral sources. As naturopathic physicians, most of us are not affiliated with large facilities or hospitals where the marketing is left up to a dedicated department; rather, we are responsible for continued attention to our referral generators. Just as naturopathic physicians vary in specialties and passions, referral sources can also vary, depending on what your practice provides, where you are located, and what you are trying to accomplish in your career. One can easily get lost in the marketing merry-go-round, but one thing that you must keep afloat, above all else, is your personal intention. Never straying from your goals and dreams of what you want your practice to be will make you far more successful than someone trying to meet everyone else’s expectations and losing a sense of yourself in the process.

All that being said, it is important to try several different referral generators to see what best fits you and your practice. Ultimately, just being a good doctor is your best referral source, as nothing compares to word of mouth, but that does take time. When you are struggling with the burdens of a new practice, or getting back from maternity leave or other significant breaks and changes that come along with running your own practice, there isn’t always time to wait for word of mouth. I speak about general marketing and referral ideas in my new guide, Tips on Creating a Successful Naturopathic Practice: Based on the Ups and Down of a ND in Private Practice, so I thought I would expand a bit here for those just starting out or needing a fresh take.

Introduce Yourself to Your Community…And Keep Up Those Relationships

No one is going to magically find you unless you get out there and make yourself known. Even doctors going back to their hometowns have noticed that they need to reintroduce themselves to their community as experts in integrative medicine. Dressing and acting professionally is a must, as for many this will likely be your first impression. Simply making rounds while you’re out running errands and covered in dog hair or your child’s breakfast is not a good way to make an impression, even with people you have known previously. This is your chance to introduce yourself as the medical expert you worked so hard to become! Also, don’t push it if people are busy. Simply leave a stack of business cards, or a promotional postcard or flyer, try to reschedule for a more convenient time, and excuse yourself. They will be grateful that you weren’t a pest, which is much better than being remembered for being aggressive. This is important for established docs to remember as well, because we need to nurture these relationships, not just start them and forget about them.

I recommend beginning with like-minded businesses such as co-ops, health food stores, medi-spas, and other wellness promoters. For most, these will be invaluable referral sources, as most people who frequent these businesses are health conscious and always asking for more resources. Another helpful resource that a colleague of mine mentioned recently is your local barber or hair stylists. These truly are the advertisers of the town and if you cultivate those relationships, you will see the results. Real estate agents are another great resource as they are constantly welcoming new residents and are often the go-to people for local resources. Even if it’s just the next neighborhood over, people often ask their realtor for the inside information.

Introduce Yourself to Your Colleagues…And Keep Up Those Relationships

Do you notice a trend here? Everyone knows relationships require attention, but many forget to implement that attention with business relationships. Do you like it when someone comes in and throws some cards at you while they rattle off a rehearsed speech and then leave, never to be heard from again? It is unlikely that those people will come into your thoughts when someone asks you for a referral, as their “commercial” rarely makes an impression; you’ve forgotten them a mere hour after they’ve left your office. Don’t be that commercial. Show them you are a reliable referral source for them as well, and that will push you higher on their referral list in return.

Here, it is also recommended you start with like-minded practitioners like massage therapists, acupuncturists, and chiropractors. Especially if you are new to the area, it’s great to feel out the allopathic community through the CAM community, to see how you may want to approach them. Some people do well by simply making appointments with various allopathic specialists to introduce themselves. Always make an appointment, never just show up and expect them to make time for you, and respect their time as you expect in return. Other people do well by indirectly introducing themselves to the allopathic community in a less assertive way. One example is to hold an annual open house for practitioners only. Another example would be getting involved with community groups like Kiwanis or Rotary, or philanthropic groups such as food pantries and women’s shelters, which is what really helped introduce me to my allopathic community when they were hesitant. That, combined with them seeing your shared patients getting well, makes us seem less of an enigma and more of a credible healthcare provider. Health-related support groups for certain conditions can be good too, as many are run by allopathic specialists. Again, it’s important to choose the groups and programs that you are passionate about, as it will be obvious when people are just there to network.

Maintain an Online Presence and Social Media

An online presence is essential for any business to thrive, not only for credibility, but also for a continuous referral source. How many times do you Google something when looking for a resource for your patients? If you find something, don’t you check out the website a little to make sure it seems “legit” before recommending it to anyone? This is exactly what people are doing to your website. If you don’t have a website, or if your website is outdated or difficult to navigate, you are losing out on a potentially huge referral source. When I first started as a newbie to my area, about 90% of my patients found me online as I worked on cultivating my other referral sources. Now that I’ve been established for a few years, word of mouth has caught up, so that percentage is lower; however, I would not be nearly as successful without my online presence, not only from individual patient referrals, but from professional referrals as well.

You also have to nurture your online relationships. Keep your webpage up to date and focus on being interactive with your community. If you like to write, consider blogging and/or doing newsletters. If you want to simply focus on medicine, at least design a pleasant site and update your testimonials and events. The more you update your webpage, the more it gets submitted to search engines like Google so you will have a higher ranking when people search for words like “naturopathic,” “health,” “wellness,” etc.

The biggest marketing boom these last few years has been with social media. This has become an endless resource for potential referrals to find out more about your practice, which can exponentially boost your online presence. This is a great way to stay connected with your patients and referral base, all in one. Whether you like to post photos or recipes on Facebook and Pinterest, or prefer some quick tips via Twitter, it can rapidly increase your relationships, as well as introduce you to new referral sources. Add in the option to run ads through these various forums, and overnight you can have one of your articles, events, or tips be seen by thousands of people, and for pennies compared to running consistent ads in print. Social media is a far-underutilized resource in the healthcare community and there is a way to do it while staying both professional and genuine.

Maintain Memberships to Your State and National Associations

Membership to our state and national associations is imperative, not only to be individually successful, but also to be successful as a profession. Even if just one patient finds you each year from both your state and national organizations, it pays for itself. My state association is usually in the top 5 referral sites to my webpage, and AANP is usually in the top 10. I get requests almost weekly from people all over the country asking me how they can find a ND and I refer them to their state’s association site and the AANP site. Keeping these profiles up to date is essential, as oftentimes people will visit these sites first before they actually get to you.


In conclusion, referrals are plentiful if you are consistent: consistent in developing relationships rather than simply meeting people, and consistent in updating those relationships both ways, not just in terms of what they can do for you. Consistency, reciprocation and staying true to your goals and intentions will provide a far more interactive referral pool with far more staying power as long as you focus on yourself, rather than what you think other people want to see from you.

McElveen_December_2013Kristen McElveen, ND graduated from National College of Natural Medicine (NCNM) in 2007. After 2 years of residency at NCNM, she moved back to the East Coast where she started her private practice, Bare Medicine, in Springvale, Maine in 2009. As well as managing her practice, Dr McElveen consults for NDs and other healthcare providers on marketing, social media, and practice/clinical management. Her book, Tips on Creating a Successful Naturopathic Practice: Based on the Ups and Downs of a ND in Private Practice, is currently available on Amazon ( Dr McElveen may be reached via the following social media avenues: Website:; Facebook:; Twitter: @BareMedicine; and Pinterest:






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