Marketing Your Practice, If You Need it

August 28, 2009
Jeff Brown

This column, the third in a series on marketing, identifies the needs of target populations in order to make physicians best available to meet them.

Now, some docs have been impacted by the economic situation and have closed practices, but even so, thinking about marketing once in a while is important to keep perspective and your standards high. As we have learned in the recent economy sag-fest, taking financial affairs for granted, even for relatively recession-proof docs, can be a fool's errand.

The flip side of the coin is that when some form of universal healthcare availability becomes a reality (not if but when), 40 million new patients will change our focus. But we'll still have to watch the store, at least because of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Last time I wrote about the high added-percentage-value of in-house marketing to your existing practice population to increase revenues. Now we are going to cover doc-to-doc referrals, limited panel marketing, and going to the public for the lovely uncovered, cash business.

The latter is primarily focused on the cosmetic end of medicine—the Lasiks, the Botoxes, the face lifts, etc. There are two primary ways to go about this: 1) a commercial, expensive, large-scale consultant with mass media, or 2) guerilla marketing, the down and dirty, low-cost alternative. We've all seen the high-end type and it apparently works or else docs wouldn't spend the big bucks involved. Fortunately, most docs can't afford and don't need this approach. If you do go this way, be careful of the fine line marking the slippery slope of ethics and legal violations, to say nothing of just plain old bad taste.

The creative, low-cost guerilla approach to attracting patients is a large subject and fills many books. You can scan Google or your local bookstore (remember those?) to get a feel for this method. Suffice it to say that it is more personal and you can control the process more easily to the confines of your comfort zone.

If your practice is small, once a buzz develops and you are living off of word-of-mouth, it still pays to “be out there.” Surveys show that word-of-mouth is the most important source of new patients as well as reinforcing existing ones. Keep satisfied patients doing your marketing for you.

Although some kinds of specialists essentially depend entirely on other docs for their business, it certainly works to all specialties' benefit to be well-regarded by your peers. I'm not ignoring the considerable psychic value of respect in the medical community, but we're talking business from referrals here, folks. Some docs are not patient-oriented as such, but event-related, as in trauma. So if you are a surgeon for instance, you especially have to keep these pipelines nourished.

This part gets tricky because some docs (and you know who you are) are wired to be either defensive or egotistic enough to be out of their comfort zones in reaching out to other docs. But, as in all things, just asking might be enough to get started. Go around to other docs' offices or approach them in the hospital and introduce, or re-introduce yourself personally. It doesn't take long and is irreplaceable. After that, performance and feedback are crucial.

Being a primary care doc, I am continually surprised and dismayed about how few referral docs do a professional job of promptly sending a follow-up note on our patients. Please refer back to my recent column on the sad, disorganized state of inter-doc referrals to spare both of us another rant. Suffice it to say, if I get a good follow-up note, that doc stays on my list, while no note means no more referrals.

On the subject of marketing to get patients from limited panels, you have to start by talking to a senior person at the insurance company. Find out the dates available for patients to sign up, what physician marketing is allowed (let alone encouraged) by the insurer and what isn't. Also, see if you can get a list of employers or even the actual potential patients to reach out to. If the exec won't cooperate, get cute and either you or the most ingratiating of your staff should schmooze with the secretaries, etc. at the insurer to get what you need. You could do something as simple as sending your brochure or e-mailing information about your website to this mailing list on a timely basis before and during the enrollment period.

You do have an up-to-date brochure available in your waiting room, and a website showing who you are, what you do, and how and when you do it, don't you? Of course you do. I used to resist the website as my practice was full, but that was incomplete thinking. Info that forestalls phone calls is there. Access information could be there as well, especially now that reimbursement is possible for online advice. Remember: your website is a 24-hour-available professional presentation.

Well, I've gone on too far again and there is still much more that I could say. But there are other subjects beckoning, so maybe we'll do more of Marketing 101 later. Any interest out there? E-mail me.