Imagine a doctor has a patient with persistent low-back pain or chronic headaches. That diagnosis could be addressed with pain medications, but maybe the patient—or the doctor—wants to explore a natural means of dealing with the pain. That’s where you, the massage therapist, come in.
But first, that doctor needs to know who you are, how good you are, and what you specialize in so they can refer that patient to your practice.
“From my functional/integrative medicine perspective, massage therapy is one of the most successful adjuncts to a comprehensive pain management plan,” said George D. Zgourides, a board-certified family physician in San Antonio, Texas, who is also a licensed massage therapist. “In many cases, it is a viable alternative to the ‘pain pills’ and costly procedures available today.”
If you’re looking to add to your client base, getting referrals from physicians is a great way to expand your business, especially if you accept insurance. Here are five things you can do to help doctors think of you when they’re trying to decide where to refer a patient for massage therapy.
1. Professionalism in Every Way
When referring patients to other health care providers, physicians have to think of you as a health care provider. That means the way you (and your staff) look, as well as the way your office runs, including your COVID-19 protocols, is vitally important.
“Professionalism is critical!” Zgourides told MASSAGE Magazine. “Appropriate attire when seeing clients, promptness, responsiveness, a clean clinic environment, safety, and coordination with referral sources are just several of the qualities I consider necessary and look for in a therapist and his/her practice.”
Zgourides also notes that your history matters, especially anything negative such as board actions or malpractice claims. A physician might seek out and read your social media posts and online reviews from patients. Make sure these posts don’t reveal patients’ personal data and violate HIPAA. If you have photos of your clinic online, make sure those have a professional vibe that’s consistent with your status as a health care provider.
Balance your high level of professionalism with a “little bit of personality,” said Tara Scott, MD, an integrative gynecologist in Fairlawn, Ohio, who often refers patients to massage therapy.
2. Evidence-Based Care
Most massage therapists enjoy taking care of people and have their own unique style of giving massage, but you must also know the hard science behind what you do.
“Doctors want to know that therapists embrace and practice evidence-based health care, show empathy toward their patients, and have a solid knowledge base,” Zgourides said.
Organizations such as the Massage Therapy Foundation (massagetherapyfoundation.org) and its research publication, the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork, are good places to get familiar with current research. Or you could take continuing education courses that focus on research literacy.
You might have to give the physician an education about what you do.
“Most physicians don’t inherently understand what massage therapy is or how it all works,” said Zgourides.
Make sure your marketing materials, in addition to being highly polished and professional-looking, address the idea that you practice evidence-based care. You can include information about what massage is and what it isn’t, as well as synopses of relevant research studies that support massage therapy’s efficacy. You can go into more detail on your practice’s website, and share those articles on your social media pages.
If you’ve chosen to specialize in a certain client population, such as athletes, it can benefit your practice to seek out partnerships with physicians; then, when they get a patient who’s an athlete, they’ll be more likely to think of you and make a referral.
Specializing in a certain condition, such as headaches, can boost your reputation as the go-to provider for that issue. COVID, for example, has added a whole new layer to repetitive stress injuries.
For “a lot of people now working at home over Zoom, over computers, posture is an issue,” said Scott. “I see a lot of people having tension in their neck and upper back.”
COVID long haulers, those people who have lingering symptoms, such as joint and body pain, months after the acute phase has passed, are another type of client you might seek out via physician referral.
4. Acceptance of Insurance
“A licensed massage therapist’s capability to qualify for and/or bill insurance is also significant for generating referrals from physicians,” said Zgourides. “Patients’ expenses, costs and reimbursements are always factors to consider.”
Numerous continuing education courses on insurance billing exist. It’s also important to research insurance providers; not all of them will reimburse for massage therapy.
Zgourides recommends that you meet with a doctor’s staff as well as with the physician themselves—but don’t just show up unannounced, ready to chat.
“I do not recommend stopping by a busy medical practice during clinic hours unannounced with an expectation of being seen in order to give doctors and nurses a spiel,” said Zgourides. “Too many pharmaceutical and hospice representatives repeatedly do this, and it’s a terrible annoyance and distraction.”
Instead, plan your visit carefully. That starts with talking to the doctor’s practice manager to set up a date and time. Offer to bring lunch for everyone who works in the practice. (It’s hard to turn down a free lunch.)
Prepare a brief packet of information about your practice to leave behind; include brochures and business cards. Afterward, Zgourides said, “a brief handwritten thank-you note following all encounters can work wonders.”
You can also provide your information to nurse practitioners, who Scott said may be more willing to make referrals for holistic care.
Or, try meeting outside the office as part of a networking group, noted Scott, which doesn’t have to just include MDs. She belongs to “an integrative medicine meetup group [with] integrative chiropractors, massage therapists, nutritionists and integrative doctors.”
Now, in our post-COVID world, people are taking a bigger interest than ever in improving and supporting their health with natural means—so it’s a very appropriate time for physicians to join forces with complementary and alternative health professionals like massage therapists.
“Licensed massage therapists,” Zgourides noted, “as valued members of the health care team, can and do play a critical and pivotal role in facilitating people’s well-being and quality of life.”
About the Author
Allison M. Payne is an independent freelance writer and editor based in Central Florida. Her recent articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “Claim Your Google My Business Page to Get Free Publicity for Your Massage Practice” and “This is What We Know About Long-Haul COVID-19 Survivors.”