Marketing basics for physicians
Neil Baum, MD, first realized the power of marketing in 1978 when he was scheduled to give a lecture on male sexual problems at a senior citizen home.
"I was getting ready to give my talk and the staff started bringing in patients in wheel chairs who were on oxygen. I thought to myself, 'This isn't going to work. These people don't need a talk on sexual problems,'" recalls Baum, a urologist who practices in New Orleans. "So I asked one of the administrators to get me a deck of cards, a piece of rope, and some rubber bands. I just shifted gears and put on a magic show instead. I ended up getting two new patients from it. Sometimes you don't know where marketing will come from or how it will be paid back to you."
Not everyone can pull a rabbit out of a hat, but there are simple ways to develop a creative and strategic marketing plan designed to retain patients, obtain new ones, improve the overall patient experience, and increase your visibility in the community.
Baum, for one, handles his marketing in-house. "I choose to do the marketing myself because I have a vested interest in it," he says. One of Baum's primary tools is a Web site that he developed two years ago for less than $4,000 -- with a monthly maintenance fee under $100.
Patients use his interactive site to make appointments, refill prescriptions, get lab results, find directions to the practice, and obtain consumer health information. Baum estimates that his Web site allows him to see 20 to 25 percent more patients than he saw before introducing the site, because his staff spends less time on the telephone answering questions that patients can now find online.
To keep the site fresh and useful, Baum announces new procedures offered by the practice, adds physician-published articles, and incorporates items that reflect current news. "After 9-11, I got a lot of calls about anthrax, so I put a page of information about it on the site," he says.
Baum budgets about 5 percent of his total gross income on marketing, but adds that some of the most successful tactics don't cost anything. "First of all, you need to do a good job with your core practice, which is marketing in and of itself," says Baum. "For instance, if I'm significantly late, I don't charge the patient. If you're on time, patients will keep coming back. Another thing to do is to call and check on patients at home after a procedure or after they're discharged from the hospital.
"These are techniques that all of us can do -- in a large or small practice - and the result will be enhanced patient satisfaction and more patients telling their friends, family, and co-workers about their positive experience with your practice," he says.
Of course, marketing plans can be as elaborate as your time and budget allow. Seaside Imaging at Florida Hospital Celebration Health in Orlando is one example of how careful packaging and presentation of a practice has increased patient volume -- and reduced patient anxiety.
Seaside Imaging is designed as "a day at the beach," including a boardwalk, ocean sounds and scent machines, beach murals, and equipment with sandcastle facades. Patients are given Hawaiian-style shirts, sandals, and bright terry cloth robes to replace the thin cotton (or even paper) gowns normally worn during diagnostic procedures.
"Because it's a unique experience, patients who might not have otherwise said something, talk about their procedure," says Nancy Walker, president of Tampa-based WalkerWhitmore Inc., the advertising and design firm that helped create Seaside Imaging's new look. "It actually creates a buzz."
A buzz with a bonus, according to Sally Grady, director of the imaging center. She says that, in addition to having been the subject of 30 to 40 stories in the media, Seaside has reduced patient cancellations for MRIs by a whopping 50 percent since its design makeover. The number of MRI exams increased from 2,185 in 2000 to 3,024 exams in 2001 -- a 38 percent jump.
Small practices can make less elaborate improvements within a modest budget -- particularly if they have staff with creative talent who are willing to participate. Walker suggests that practices interested in pursuing more ambitious projects might seek funding from equipment vendors, for example.
"There are companies trying to align themselves with tomorrow's technology. Sometimes they don't have the exposure to patients and they're looking to build their brand. Having their name on part of the design gives them the brand awareness they want," she says.
Walker says the outside of a medical facility is as important as the inside for attracting patients. "I happen to believe packaging is everything. If your signage, your landscaping, and even the building you're in isn't the image you want to project, you will lose patients before they even meet the physician," she says.
"One of the most common errors in marketing is when you're doing things hodgepodge and fragmenting your message. Consistency is one of the biggest opportunities" and one of the most valuable qualities of a good marketing plan, says Walker.
This is an area in which help from an outside firm can be crucial; marketing firms can also suggest the best way to make use of the limited marketing dollars many practices are working with. "If you don't have much money, it's all the more reason to make sure every dollar is spent wisely," says Walker.
The best way to find a marketing firm that meets your needs is to get referrals and interview several of them, says Walker. "Doctors should look at other businesses and find out who did their marketing," she says.
"Even private practices need to market themselves because consumers have more of a say in their medical procedures -- specifically elective procedures," says Walker. "Just as physicians find it important to get legal and financial assistance, it's just as important to get marketing guidance. Marketing really has to be considered as an investment. It's what's going to generate a revenue stream."
Carmella Imig, of The Wellness Place in Gretna, Neb., near Omaha, is one physician whose patients definitely have a say in her practice. "I wanted my practice to feel like it wasn't so institutionalized," says Imig, a family practice physician, who used local organizations to reach patients and shape the operation of her practice.
Before setting office hours, Imig did some research and found that physicians and patients agreed on 20 minutes as the ideal amount of time for an appointment -- much longer than the typical allotted time. Consequently, her appointments are 20 minutes each; 40 minutes for new patients. She also found that most patients prefer to visit the doctor before and after work or school. She has set her schedule accordingly, seeing patients from 7 to 11 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. Appointments are scheduled just a few days in advance; if patients wish to schedule an appointment months in advance, they call Imig's office the week of the visit.
To build on her initial efforts, Imig and her husband, who is the office manager, receptionist, and billing person, sought the help of Omaha-based Private Practice Associates, which set up the office and offered additional outreach tips. To get her name out in the community, Imig networked with chamber of commerce members, who helped the Imigs hire local businesses like carpet cleaners and air conditioner repair companies. The couple visited the local pharmacy, which agreed to display The Wellness Place's marketing materials.
Imig points out that traditional marketing tactics -- such as newspaper advertisements, magnets, and brochures designed in-house -- also proved useful. And now she is considering an offer from the chamber of commerce to link to its Web site. The result of all these efforts, which cost the practice a mere $3,000? A new patient base of 320 within four months.
"I think a lot of physicians put a sign out front and put an ad in the Yellow Pages and think patients will come. But there's so much more," says Walker. "Patients will give repeat business to those that make them feel good -- that means the patient care, the way the staff and techs treat them, and also what they see, hear, and smell. Remember, if you're not marketing your practice, there are others practices that are."
Karen Gatzke can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2002 issue of Physicians Practice.