Marketing: the Nitty Gritty

August 20, 2009
Jeff Brown, MD

To build your practice today—to help people you have worked so hard to qualify for—you need a basic understanding of marketing: how to identify your target group of patients, their needs, and how you might meet those needs.

Last time I talked about how "Hang your shingle and they will come" is an idea in most locales for which the time has past. To build your practice today—to help people you have worked so hard to qualify for—you need a basic understanding of marketing: how to identify your target group of patients, their needs, and how you might meet those needs. I mentioned four types of situations that apply: appealing to patients on a panel, appealing to patients outside of insurance coverage, looking to other docs for referrals, and marketing internally to already established patients.

Based upon my experience and that of marketing pros I've talked to, internal marketing is where you get the most bang for your buck and the quickest. I am not talking about gilding the lily and doing unnecessary tests or procedures; that would be unethical and ultimately counterproductive. But regardless of your specialty, there are patients now in your practice who either do not know of the full range of services you can provide or have simply been "lost to follow-up," as the euphemism goes.

With available software, it is now easier than ever to keep track of your patients, and when appropriate, send a tickler/reminder for a timely recheck. Or how about a newsletter updating them on changes in the field, your professional activities, or the staff's development and goings-on? You can even get canned newsletters online if you don't want to do the work yourself. I mentioned including the staff as well as the docs because I have been impressed with how much patient loyalty is attached to staff members and not just the doc’s expertise and charming personality.

If you are unsure of the value of any of this, or if you want to test other ideas you may have, don't be afraid to just ask your patients. Complete a brief point-of-service questionnaire or a computer-added one on any direct patient billing that you do. It may be an eye opener.

Here is another useful, no-cost trick to improve your practice: have a friend that you respect and trust come to your office as a "mystery shopper." Ask him or her to take notes on phone service, office appearance, greeting, form handling, timing, service, cheerfulness of staff, thoroughness, and anything else that you value. The results could be another eye opener. Maybe reverse the favor and do the same for your friend's office or even take an hour or two and tour some other area offices to take stock and get some ideas. Often, we get so caught up in our back office and outside work that we assume things are "fine" instead of actually proving that we run a first-class operation that will boost patient's respect and business. If you make changes based upon these new observations, ask your friend to revisit and compare the before and after.

As an alternative, it has been my experience that bringing in a seasoned pro to conduct a "practice analysis" from phone to front door through to the books is value added and cost effective. The good ones won't be cheap, but you should be able to make back the cost easily. A good review will also include marketing based on your local situation, if you need it. By the way, this pro will probably offer some kind of on-going follow-up, if for another stiff fee. At first, it's often worth it to have a knowing hand do the necessary work, but as things improve, it gets easier for them, and by human nature, they start taking you for granted. But the fees don't decline. I do know of such relationships that have worked well for many years, so stay on your toes, just as you would with any of your vendors. You review your CPA, lawyer, insurance person, and financial advisor annually, don't you?

How do you find such a consultant in your area? Check with friends to see if any of them have done so. Check with your county or state medical society, or your specialty association. Check around on the Internet. Always ask for references, and check them. Read between the lines. It may be deductible, but it's still cash up front, so get a contract, and review it with your lawyer.

In my next post, I will get to panel growth, community appeal, and referral building.