Client liaisons are a growing trend in the medical field

Client liaisons are a growing trend in the medical field

By Susan Kim, Stephanie Graham. CREATED Oct 3, 2013

Sabrina Alexander spends most days visiting different physician's offices --armed with brochures and head shots.  She touts the qualifications of the doctors in the orthopedic group where she works.

"The things that I can do really help my specialists shine to other primary care physicians and help them stand out against the competition," Sabrina explains.

She's part of a growing industry of 'client liaisons'.  Front line go-betweens like Sabrina, and even entire marketing firms, are hired by specialty physicians to hit the road.  Pediatrician Matthew Cepeda admits, "Oftentimes that is the only way that we learn about a new doctor in town."

That's because health care has changed dramatically over the last decade. A study found the number of patients referred to specialists nearly doubled, and busy primary care docs don't spend as much time in the hospital meeting other specialists.  So many doctors like to meet with specialists' representatives.

"Whenever I need another resource they're the best way for me to find out what else can be done for your health care," Dr. Cepeda says.

Critics worry these office-to-office pitches could pose an ethical health hazard.  Bioethicist Lawrence Nelson explains, "I don't think patients have the vaguest idea of, uh- that their referral might have been the result of a marketing campaign."

Nelson hopes primary care docs are basing referrals only on specialists' qualifications.

"The best protection for patients is physicians who are following their ethical obligation to make referrals based upon the patients need and personal preferences and not on slick marketing or any kind of other inducements," he says.

The American Medical Association says there's strict ethical guidelines and laws regarding patient referrals---similar to rules regulating pharmaceutical sales reps.  Physicians have to be knowledgeable about a specialist's experience, and can't accept referral fees. 

"My job is to refer my patients to whoever I think is going to provide the highest level of medical care in that situation," Dr. Cepeda says.

Experts say patients should always ask any specialist they're referred to basic questions like:
"Have you seen problems like mine before?"
"How many patients have you treated with this condition?"