The Dos & Don’ts of Approaching Physicians for Referrals

September 07, 2019

by Kim Foster, M.D. & Coach

Are you interested in having physicians refer their patients to you? What would it mean for your business if they did?

If you’re tired of struggling to find enough clients to keep your wellness coaching or nutrition business booked and you’re burned out from all the hustling on social media…you’re not alone!

There is a better way to find new, high-quality clients.

I’ve been a family physician for 20 years. In addition to being a family physician, I’m also a coach. My perspective gives me an insider’s view of how this system works from both sides. I am of the opinion that this is an untapped partnership.

My firsthand experience

Several years ago I became incredibly disillusioned and burned out from medicine. A nurse in our clinic was building a career for herself as a health coach, and I worked together with her on various projects. It was my first introduction to the world of wellness coaching, and the more I learned about it the more I fell in love with the model. I really felt like I could breathe for the first time.

I realized this was exactly what I wanted to do myself. Even while I was referring patients to her for coaching (about 10–12 patients every month), I began following my own path into coaching. I saw firsthand how beneficial a partnership between physician and health coach was for everyone involved — physician, health coach and especially the patients!

Like many other wellness coaches, when I first started I was very reluctant to approach medical professionals for referrals — even though they were my colleagues and peers! So I absolutely understand the hesitation that you may feel when considering this approach. Looking back now, I wish I had begun to leverage a referral network much sooner than I did, because I remember how much I benefited from referring patients to a health coach when still in family medicine. It is such a rich source of clients and essential part of my health coaching business.

It’s a win-win

When you make a connection with a physician who then begins referring their patients to you, you have just turned on the faucet for a continuous flow of leads and clients. And what I’m here to tell you is that physicians need you just as much as you need them.

Truth is, doctors are typically run off their feet trying to deal with packed waiting rooms and ever-increasing paperwork. Physicians have far too little time with patients, given the structure of our current healthcare system. They certainly don’t have sufficient time to tackle preventive and lifestyle issues with their patients…which means: frazzled doctors and frustrated patients with unmet needs. In contrast, health and wellness coaches are perfectly positioned to help with all that. A coach is willing and able to take the time to coach people through the complex journey of lifestyle change. It’s the perfect setup for a symbiotic relationship.

But there are good ways of approaching doctors for referrals…and not-so-good ways. It’s not just a simple matter of showing up at a medical office and handing out your business card.

The Dos and Don’ts of approaching physicians

DO create a target list. Instead of just randomly calling doctors’ offices, take the time to do some research beforehand. I recommend choosing physicians in your area and physicians who have a practice profile that matches your ideal client. If possible, seek out physicians who have an expressed interest in a more holistic approach. Curate and prioritize your list, and continue adding to it. Being prepared when approaching the physicians on your list is key! Ensure your pitch is tailored to the particulars of each office you’re contacting.

DO be very polite to the gatekeepers. The front staff at medical offices have many responsibilities, but one of their key roles is to protect the physician’s time. If you want to build a referral or collaborative relationship with a physician, you will usually need to start with the front staff. So let’s start with a few tips on how to get the gatekeeper to like you. First, smile. Be polite and friendly, and take the time to find out the gatekeeper’s name. Be courteous — when you’re at the front desk, allow patients to come first. Be a warm welcome to the MOA (medical office assistant): remember, they deal with people who are sick all day. Try to connect with them and find a way to have a conversation. Naturally, this approach of being likable and polite extends to anyone you speak to in the medical office — including the physicians if and when you get a chance to talk to them. After all, if they like you, they will refer to you, so your goal is to be friendly as well as professional.

DO learn how you can help physicians. The truth is, as a health or wellness coach you are actually in a position to help physicians. It can be a mutually beneficial situation, so it’s important to not only adopt that mindset for yourself but also to position yourself in this way. Learn how you can best help physicians and their patients, and emphasize this in your pitch. You ideally want to frame your offer as a problem solved for a physician. You may feel like you’re approaching doctors asking them to do you a favor. But that’s not the situation, and this is not the approach you should take. Instead, figure out how you can help them. Put yourself in their shoes. Are you improving the well-being of their patients? Are you lightening their workload by reducing the amount of patient education they have to do on the benefits of getting more exercise? Frame your services as a problem solved for the doctor you’re speaking with. Always keep in mind that you are providing a service to a physician, and pitch it this way.

DON’T book an appointment with a doctor just to pitch yourself. It can be tempting to do this, but this is not okay and will not endear you to the physician you’re trying to build a rapport with. You can’t occupy a patient appointment slot for this purpose. Most physicians’ offices run on a fee-for-service model, and will not be able to bill for a visit like this. That will leave a bad taste in their mouth. Plus, you’ll be taking away a spot that should be reserved for a patient. Not to mention it comes across as a bit sneaky and is not the tone you want to establish for this relationship.

DON’T fail to follow up. To be frank, rarely will your very first attempt result in an immediate yes. For many physicians and medical offices, “health coaching” will be a new concept. You will likely need to warm them up, educate them about what a health or wellness coach does, develop the relationship, and keep building and nurturing…until you do eventually get a yes. As with any type of sales process, it’s a journey, and follow-up is everything. Set up a system of reminders that works for you, and keep circling back to people to stay top-of-mind.

The other situation where it’s critical to follow-up is if a physician actually does refer someone to you. In this case, you definitely want to send a report back to the physician (with your client’s written permission, of course) and update the physician on any wins, successes, and progress. This will help to solidify the referral relationship and give the physician even more confidence to refer even more people to you.

DON’T get discouraged. I see way too many coaches give up because they got a lukewarm — or even negative — response from the first physician they approach which is a shame. Expect to hear “no” and keep reminding yourself that you do not need to sell all physicians on the benefits of referring to you. In fact, you really just need one referral partner in the beginning. Then two.

For most coaches, a mere handful of referring physicians will give you all the clients you can handle. So don’t give up! This is a marketing strategy that requires persistence and a tough skin. Do not take any of it personally, and keep trying. The potential benefits are so incredibly worth it.

So there you have it, tips to get you started with building your MD referral network!

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can get more referrals from MDs, you’ll want to check out Kim’s free mini-guide How To Get MD Referrals. You can also learn more about Kim and her work to help bridge the gap between MDs and coaches by following her on Instagram or by going to

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