Protecting Your Practice, Patients against Ominous Healthcare Trends

Here are three primary reasons today’s physician must always be thinking of what’s next in marketing, promotion, and practice in general.

Physicians, including some of my partners, have recognized (some too late) that patients can rate and review them online.

Reactions I’ve seen include horror, frustration, panic, indifference, or in some cases, immediate inspiration.

Of course the most healthy reaction is to counter negative reviews with positive ones. This returns power and control over to the physician and minimizes the effect of vindictive reviewers who go out of their way to make their opinions known.

It’s an example of a forward-looking strategy for managing your community reputation.

To ignore or react poorly to such trends can mean playing catch up in the mildest cases, or financial ruin in the most severe situations.

Here are three primary reasons today’s physician must always be thinking of "what’s next" in marketing, promotion, and practice in general.

1. Physicians are not in control as much as we used to be.

We can debate the reasons until the end of time, but the farther we’ve traveled away from the halcyon days and golden years of medical practice, the more control we’ve lost.

Whether the blame is laid at our feet or insurance companies or the government is a discussion for another time. The fact remains that most of us do not operate in a vacuum, alone with the patient.

Third parties are everywhere in medicine - and most of them have more power, money, and often unlimited legal resources at their disposal.

Simple acknowledgement of this fact will at least open your eyes to trends and forces shaping healthcare for the next 10 years.

It may help to realize that the same forces have been at work, but more physicians are less myopic about it these days.

Reaction to these forces may take many forms for you: involvement in political action committees, specialty societies, changing a business plan, or adjusting marketing messages.

2. New competition is always a looming threat.

Often it’s tempting to forget that there are whole classes full of medical students coming up in the ranks behind us, ready to take over when we’re not looking.

Some new physician could always enter your market with new techniques, bolder strategies or messages, and take away market share from your practice.

Patients do still have a modicum of choice, remember?

Instead of being paralyzed by this fact, let it stimulate you to focus more intently on what your patients want, what they’re responding to, and what’s missing from your services that you could add next week or even tomorrow.

Some of your reaction to lurking competition should be preemptive and defensive. For instance, if a new, unproven, but sexy technique is coming to your area, get on the local news and talk about how it’s misperceived or overblown, in the most professional way possible. Communicate with referring doctors about new trends that may not be best for patients.

3. You want transitions to be as atraumatic as possible for your patients and potential patients.

Patients and consumers can handle change, but usually a gradual easing into a new style of relationship is best.

For instance, the rise of the hospitalist has changed many family practice and internists’ practices forever. "What do you mean I won’t see you in the hospital anymore?"

The forward-looking, trend-spotting physician could have eased his patients into this change with a postcard or e-mail or letter.

The same holds true for any part of medicine that doesn’t stay the same:

• Increasing use of nurse practitioners and physician assistants

• Changes in healthcare law, or introduction of drastically new laws

• Insurance companies making radical changes in reimbursement patterns or rates

• Hospitals employing more physicians

• Changing attitudes of the public towards doctors or traditional medicine

• New styles of marketing a practice, like social media

• Spotting trends ahead of time makes transitions easier for patients and demonstrates you’re looking out for their best interests.

How can you be a trend-spotting physician in the coming new year?

First, get out of your comfort zone in your reading and surfing online. Shift the weight of your information consumption from clinical information over to practice improvement and strategy.

• Read a blog about healthcare policy.

• Follow some savvy marketers on Twitter.

•Snoop around on your competition’s website and find out what they’re doing.

• Listen to patients about how they make healthcare decisions. Ask them, "How did you find me or pick me?" or "Tell me about how your chiropractor has helped you."

• Are your patients thinking about going overseas for healthcare or scrutinizing your bill more, asking more billing questions?

You can hold your hands over your ears and sing the Star Spangled Banner when you sense a change coming, or you can adapt and adopt in preparation for inevitable changes.

At the very least, position yourself to make a move if necessary.