Growth Strategies: Marketing the Right Way

May 1, 2007
Pamela Moore, PhD

Here’s how to boost patient awareness without spending a lot of money or doing anything that makes you uncomfortable. Hint: It’s not about the Yellow Pages anymore.


Jeff Guillory, a family nurse practitioner, spent $500 a month on billboard advertising when he opened his solo practice in little Lumberton, Texas. But most patients were drawn to his office because of its convenient location, which renders a long drive across the Texas wilds unnecessary. And after one visit, many first-timers liked Guillory’s practice so much they became regulars.

The counterintuitive moral of the story: Marketing works.

Good marketing isn’t just about external outreach, such as billboards, telephone-book ads, and radio spots. It’s also about the work you perform each day in your practice.

“Physicians are marketing all the time, whether they are doing it proactively and consciously or not,” says Andrew Neitlich of the Healthcare Marketing Institute in Sarasota, Fla. “Marketing refers to the entire experience the patient has, from how they hear about the practice, to how long it takes to get there, to the first interaction with staff.” Like it or not, you and your staff are involved in some type of marketing during every patient visit and follow-up.

Your practice’s growth depends on how well you and your staff communicate with potential and existing patients, both inside and outside your office walls. But many physicians don’t make that connection, and they consequently fail to concentrate on enhancing patient relations as much as they should.

The sleaze factor

What’s the holdup? Well, some physicians interpret any type of self-promotion as a sign of weakness and consider it, well, just plain icky.

Fear not. Gimmicky tactics “don’t apply in marketing a medical practice, nor should they apply,” says Neitlich. “[Marketing] is really about educating the community about what you do. Physicians should not be making a pitch. They should be building their relationships and credibility.”

Mari Davis, who runs Empire Zoom, a branding company in Boulder, Colo., agrees. “I think part of the problem for physicians is if you don’t want to [market], if you think it’s a bad thing, you’re not going to be coming up with the best ideas,” she says. “I like to ask, ‘Do you think you’re doing a service for people?’ The answer is usually ‘Yes.’ Then what’s the harm in telling people that you do this, so you can make more people’s lives better and help more people?”

And marketing is as much about projecting a positive image as it is about selling things. It’s about forging relationships and solving problems, says Jim Wardlaw, principal of Publicom, Inc., an East Lansing, Mich.-based marketing consultancy specializing in brand development for service companies. “Part of healing is cultivating a very powerful relationship with the patient,” says Wardlaw. “There is a level of intimacy there that is very important.”

Lonnie Hirsch chuckles when he hears physicians say that marketing themselves might create the impression that they are struggling. “That presumes that people are spending a lot of time thinking about you, but they’re not,” argues the cofounder of Healthcare Success Strategies in Coto de Caza, Calif. “You are spending a lot of time thinking about you. Your image is like a blank canvas; you can paint the reputation that you want people to perceive. You can either use marketing to shape their opinion or let them shape their opinion based on whatever they come up with on their own.”

And keep in mind that physicians who don’t take marketing seriously may be opening the door for their competitors. “A less qualified physician who markets will do better than a more qualified physician who doesn’t,” says Neitlich. “It’s not fair, but it’s true. Physicians have to be proactive.”

Getting started

If you are ready to focus on marketing internally, Davis suggests beginning with two steps that can help you lay the right groundwork.

First, articulate five to seven “image” words that describe your practice. You may think that nearly every physician would come up with the same words, but there are nuances. While some practices think of themselves as “technologically advanced,” others describe themselves as “down-home,” and still others consider themselves “thorough.”


After selecting your image words, determine which three or four elements distinguish your practice from its competitors. Image words describe what your practice is. How does your office stand out from other physician practices? When you use differentiators to create a positioning statement, remember that these elements need not be unique only to you. But they should help you stake out a position that no one else is crowing about. As Davis puts it: “[Let’s] say Coke says, ‘We have a lot of bubbles.’ And root beer says, ‘We’re really brown.’ And Pepsi says, ‘We quench thirst.’ Well, all of them can quench thirst, but only Pepsi is saying it.”

Focus on your practice’s attributes that are most valued by patients and referring physicians - attributes that may or may not be most important to you. “It’s about what referral sources and patients want to hear that will compel them to use this practice,” explains Neitlich. “They ask, ‘Why is this practice the best?’ It’s probably not about where the physicians went to school. It’s about how the physicians can help me.”

It’s also wise to draw attention to your entire practice rather than just one physician, Wardlaw advises. After all, if your star physician leaves or retires, he’ll take your strategy with him.

Once you’ve articulated your unique identity, all staff members must live up to it. If you tell the public you’re friendly, then everyone in your office should be friendly when interacting with patients, Davis says. Once you lay the groundwork for your branding strategy, everyone in the practice should know what is expected of them.

Of course, you want to promote an image you can actually live up to. Neitlich says he worked with physicians in one practice who perceived themselves as empathetic, compassionate, and part of their community. But patients complained about being forced to miss scheduled appointments because they were kept too long in the office’s waiting room. They also groused that doctors failed to communicate test results in a timely manner.

“You can actually create more problems for your company if you over-promise and under-deliver,” says Wardlaw.

In fact, taking the conscious step to market your practice may require you to re-engineer some of your office’s processes. “In the service business, you are dealing with fleeting experiences,” says Neitlich. “So it’s hard to convey a tangible sense of the brand.” You have to seize every opportunity.

Fulfilling the promise

So how can you put these platitudes into practice? An effective marketing strategy can be quite easy, and it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. For your internal efforts, consider the following:

  • New-patient handouts - You should give each new patient literature describing your practice and its mission. “The person at the front desk says, ‘Here’s a little bit about our practice,’ and just hands it over,” suggests Davis. “Just because you’re a new patient doesn’t mean you are planning on staying there. You still have to sell a new patient.”

Testimonials make a great addition. If a patient has written you a note thanking you for your especially compassionate care, ask if you can share a part of that note with other patients.

The idea is to convey your message in such a way that your patients believe your sincerity and begin to talk about the practice in the same terms you’ve used. “You have to offer information to patients for them to help spread it by word of mouth,” says Davis.

Some staff members may resist handing out marketing materials, Davis admits. “You find employee discomfort around new things,” she explains. “Yes, some patients may say they don’t need the brochure. They didn’t just call you a horrible human being.” Davis encourages physicians to help their staff deal with such changes.

Also, match your processes to the image you are projecting. If you want to establish yourself as technologically advanced in your patients’ minds, ask them to complete office forms on tablet PCs or at a check-in kiosk. Shape your patients’ experiences so they conform to your branding strategy.

  • In-office images - These include the artwork and any photographs or diagrams on your walls. Davis couldn’t help but laugh the first time she visited an optometry client’s tiny exam room. Seated in the examining chair, she was just inches away from a wall chart depicting grotesque eye diseases - not exactly a comforting sight. The chart had been there for 20 years.

Rather than leaving up that old chart describing contraceptive options or showing a cross-section of the inner ear, use your walls to make a statement about your practice. Frame and hang patient testimonials within view of your visitors.

  • Timely follow-up - Consider sending new patients a handwritten note, thanking them for their visit, or find another way to follow up that is consistent with your brand promises. With this simple gesture, “you are putting yourself in a higher arena,” says Davis.

  • Printed marketing materials - Review your current brochures, ads, and any other marketing collateral, with your new branding strategy in mind. “If your wife’s brother’s neighbor who sometimes does graphic design laid it out … there goes professionalism out the window,” says Davis.

“There is a tendency not to want to put a lot of emphasis on marketing materials,” Wardlaw adds. “Physicians want to run it off on the copier, and so on. I had one client say that he didn’t believe much in the look of things. He thought he could provide good service out of a paper bag.”

Beyond your practice

Once you’ve revamped your internal image, you may want to consider some external outreach, such as direct mail and advertising. This is what comes to mind when most people think of marketing.

The key here is to use your dollars wisely by tracking your results, says Hirsch. He worked with one physician in Southern California who advertised heavily but didn’t really know whether his strategy was attracting new business. “He just threw stuff out there and figured overall it was bringing in business and paying for itself,” Hirsch says. Armed, at last, with return-on-investment data, the physician was able to slash his ad budget by a third without seeing any decline in patient response. He just stopped doing what wasn’t working.

The best time to capture accurate information regarding where new patients found out about your practice is when they first call in to make an appointment, Hirsch says. That’s when the information is at the top of their minds. You’re less likely to get an accurate response once patients arrive in your office and get handed reams of paperwork. At that point, it’s all too easy for them to ignore the little line that asks where they heard about the practice.

Instruct your scheduler to simply ask new patients, “Whom can we thank for referring you to us today?” says Hirsch. The patient will either answer with a name or acknowledge using some other channel to locate you. “Most practices don’t ask, so they are flying blind,” says Hirsch.

Or you may want to try one of the newer services that allow you to create a phone number specific to each of your direct-mail or advertising campaigns. Such services assign unique phone numbers to different ads. When patients call, that number is directed to your front desk. A report generated by the service allows you to track how many calls different ads generated without having to involve your office staff.

Bottom line: Know how your marketing dollars are - or are not - working for you.

Whether your branding and marketing strategies are quiet or loud, you can use the tools of the trade to enhance your patient base without feeling like a used-car salesman.

Pamela L. Moore, PhD, is senior editor, practice management, of Physicians Practice. She can be reached at pmoore@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Physicians Practice.