In private practice, it's advantageous to have collaborative relationships with other professionals. Your mutual clients benefit from collaboration on their treatment and progress. You also benefit, because over time, you and the professionals you collaborate with can develop long-term cross-referral relationships. In addition, collaborating with one professional can lead to their recommending you to their colleagues, which in turn can result in more referrals to you.


How to develop collaborative relationships

Some collaborative relationships develop naturally and incrementally. For example, a client (let's call him Jack) with a chronic medical condition gives you permission to talk to Dr. Smith, his internist. Dr. Smith fills you in on Jack's medical issues, and you briefly summarize your treatment goals for Jack. Then, every couple of months, you send Dr. Smith a short progress note.

One day, shortly after reading your latest note, Dr. Smith sees another patient who could use mental health treatment, and refers her to you. As the new patient gets better under your care, Dr. Smith has increasing confidence in your work. Similarly, you get frequent positive feedback about Dr. Smith, and you readily refer people to her for medical care.

Over time, you and Dr. Smith build a long-term collaborative relationship, touching base periodically on your mutual patients, and referring people to one another when appropriate.

In order to build collaborative relationships, consider doing one or more of the following:

  • Whenever you get a referral from another professional, thank them (with your client's permission) and, if clinically appropriate, send occasional summary updates on the client's progress. Do not send copies of your treatment notes. Include only as much detail as necessary for coordination of care.
  • Stop by to visit and ask the other professional for a few of their business cards.
  • Invite the other professional to lunch or for a quick coffee.
  • Ask the other professional to send you information or references related to the issues faced by the person they referred to you.
  • If the other professional is on social media, follow him or her and leave comments, retweet or "like" their posts.

Through  networking and other strategies, you can get to know other professionals who might eventually become collaborative partners. For example:

  • Join interdisciplinary organizations, such as collaborative divorce professionals, local health care task forces, and educational advisory boards.
  • Aim to get on panels with other professionals at their professional conferences, and invite them to be on a panel at yours.
  • Write articles for their trade publications on mental health topics pertinent to their patients and clients.
  • Learn about their work. Keep up with developments in their fields. For example, depending on the type of professional you collaborate with, learn about relevant court rulings, new medical treatments, or new laws that affect your collaborators' work.
  • Get additional training to improve or expand your skill set to address the needs of professionals you want to collaborate with.
  • If you want to integrate your work with health care professionals, consider applying for staff privileges at your local hospitals. Although the credentialing process can be rigorous, if accepted you will have more access to physicians, not just in terms of patient care, but also in "hanging out" time over lunch or coffee.


Start off on the right foot

In their eagerness to form collaborative relationships, some clinicians approach other professionals with the primary focus on themselves: their experience, their training and credentials - as they might do in a job interview.

Or they independently map out a detailed plan for a collaborative relationship with the other professional or organization, and submit a multi-page proposal of how it would work - as they might do when submitting a grant proposal.

Note that neither of the above approaches invites early input from the other professional. In other words, they don't start out collaboratively.

A better way to initiate collaborative relationships is to first focus on the other professional. Learn all you can about the specific issues and problems faced by them and their clientele. Then you will be better positioned to explain and show how your services can be of value.

But that's just the beginning. Be prepared to invest additional time and effort in cultivating the relationship. Take similar action steps as described in the bullet points above. Also, you may need to educate them on referral guidelines, especially when dealing with early-career professionals, who may not have the experience to notice signs of need for mental health services.

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