Would-be physicians attend medical school and complete their residency training with the dream of putting an MD after their name. But it is another MD that more and more is becoming essential if these same physicians are to build a profitable and sustainable business in many markets around the country. That MD stands for "marketing director."
As the healthcare industry has evolved, so too have the methods physicians use to attract patients and impact their community. A half-century ago, hanging a shingle and having a solid work ethic was the secret to success. In many communities in fact, it was really all that was needed. Fast forward 25 years and that new generation of physicians learned how to adapt to a managed care environment where health plan relationships and payer mix were key. Large medical groups had all the leverage in negotiating contracts and capturing desirable marketshare.
Now, the world has changed again. Today, physicians need to know how to position themselves in a population health management marketplace where strategic affiliations, the ability to differentiate and a value-driven (rather than volume-driven) philosophy create customers for life.
While there are many tools in a marketing toolbox, none is better suited for today’s physicians than public relations. That’s because it is public relations, more than advertising, direct mail, bumper stickers, or other similar initiatives, which combines high credibility with a relatively low cost. Resources put into public relations are dollars well spent as public relations can help build your brand (yes, even an individual is a brand), raise your visibility, and position you and your practice in a favorable light.
The effective execution of a public relations program involves strategy and tactics, science and art, and fundamentals and creativity. And just as physicians hone their craft through merging indispensable education with practical experience, so too the best public relations professionals find a way to successfully transition textbook theory into real-world know how.
For physicians who want to dip their toes in this water, here are five secrets to building your practice through public relations:
1. Tap into local media. Engage in a proactive media strategy with your local publications, TV, and radio stations. This means sending out press releases on new physicians joining your practice, local community involvement, new services offered, or milestones reached. Another good media strategy involves writing a weekly or monthly health-tips column for your community newspaper and then “repurposing” these columns by posting them to your website or having reprints available in your lobby.
2. Reach out into the community. Find opportunities to speak on your area of expertise at appropriate community or business gatherings. Similarly, look for chances to speak at the worksites of local employers or employer-sponsored events. To really maximize the value of these talks, invite the media. That way, you and your message have the potential to reach more people than actually attend your presentation.
3. Be opportunistic. Look for opportunities to cleverly piggyback your messaging and activities with appropriate health observances such as American Heart Month or “weeks” that call attention to diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc. The Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development publishes an annual guide listing all of these observances.
4. Be current and relevant. Develop an online strategy that allows you to push messages directly to your patients or other members of the community in a timely and effective manner. That means keeping your website current as well as inviting two-way communication through social media and allowing your patients (and others) to communicate with you through whichever medium they feel most comfortable. Today it’s all about “the patient experience” and that involves your interactions before, during and after their office visit.
5. Leverage hospital relationships. Let your affiliated hospital know that you are available as a source when the media calls, when they require a physician to quote in their employee or community newsletter, or when they need a physician to represent them at a community function. Doing this demands a commitment of time, but it will be repaid many times over in visibility, goodwill, and trust-building.
With increasing frequency, public relations is the marketing strategy of choice for physicians who want to grow their practice and become an indispensable resource to hospitals, health plans, businesses, consumers, and fellow professionals in their community. It might be time for you to give it a try.
Ross K. Goldberg is founder and president of Kevin/Ross Public Relations in Southern California. He is a 36-year veteran of healthcare public relations and past chairman of the board of trustees at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif. E-mail him here.