Home-based senior care providers face a significant problem when it comes to differentiation in the eyes of referring physicians. In fact, a recent study on the referral behaviors of physician offices revealed a startling statistic: 81% said they see little to no difference in the quality of home health, hospice and palliative care providers in their area.

Senior care agencies have long struggled with improving physician referrals. Many physicians don’t refer nearly as early as they should or may not utilize the full benefits they can provide to patients and families alike. It’s a missed opportunity for better and earlier care for patients, relief for their families, and increased census and length of stay for providers.

The physician study, conducted by Transcend Strategy Group, sheds light on some of the perceptions and patterns that lead to these lackluster referrals. The major issue relating to low perceived differentiation is both a risk and an opportunity. It suggests that physician referrers’ preference is usually “up for grabs” by any provider who can offer something of greater perceived value.

Beyond deciding whether and when a patient gets referred, the surveyed audience often plays a pivotal role in deciding to whom they are referred. Patients identify which home health agency they want only 8% of the time. Almost always, the physician staff is making the decision for them. Further, they most often refer to a specific provider versus providing a more complete list of providers in the area.

The clear signal is that home care providers need to take a close look at strengthening their referrer-facing brand, messaging and communication strategy. Doing so could increase referrals today, while safeguarding that pipeline in the future.

Highlight how you support efficiency

Responsiveness was ranked most often as the most important attribute of a good referral partner (other than quality care), with 67% ranking it as their first or second choice.

Timely response needs to be a part of your referrer value proposition, but first make sure you know what “timely” means to them. Our experience has taught us that many referrers expect at least some kind of acknowledgement of the referral within one hour — if not a follow-up call to start processing it within that time frame. Some providers offer at least basic follow-up and confirmation within 15 minutes.​ Consider how technology and automation can assist with responding quickly to all referrals — or if you could even offer a guarantee of a time frame they can count on a response.

When a physician office decides to make the referral, they want that patient off their plate fast. If you’re the agency referrers know they can count on for rapid response, you’ll likely be their first call.

Tailor the message and approach

Promptness and efficiency are universal essentials, but they can mean different things to different providers based on office size, affiliation and other variables. For example, while respondents overall highly ranked responsiveness, those who are part of a healthcare system ranked it in their top three less often.

In general, these also tended to be larger offices, and they appeared interested in how referral partners can support them in broader, more sophisticated ways – prioritizing a more diverse range of efficiency-related attributes (such as EHR compatibility).

Rather than a “shot gun” approach, consider how you can strategically narrow your list of physician prospects and leverage a more personalized communication strategy taking into account nuances like this. You could then supplement liaison outreach with tools such as account-based marketing (ABM) that enables laser-targeting prime prospects with tailored digital ads.

Consider your role as “specialist”

Physician offices said they more frequently refer to “specialists” than any other service, and they are consistently more specific in their top choice in this category. Granted, they’re thinking of “specialists” in the traditional sense (oncology, cardiology, pulmonology), but it suggests opportunity for senior care.

If you can create a position for your agency that helps physicians see you as “specialists” in your service lines, it may help you stand apart as the provider of choice. Going one (significant) step further would be to explore how your agency could specialize in certain disease states and back it up with evidence-based case studies and patient outcomes. For instance, could you collect data showing that COPD and CHF patients in your care have fewer ER visits and hospital admissions? The effort would take a lot of data-gathering legwork, but it could build the compelling case that sparks engagement with your referrer prospects.

To learn more insights about the referral patterns of physician offices, view the full report.

Dave Hochanadel is the insights and brand strategy lead at Transcend Strategy Group. Transcend helps senior care companies grow by applying deep expertise, data-driven insight and Fortune 500 best practices to each clients’ unique needs.