The Tech Doctor: Put Internet Marketing to Work

March 1, 2006
Steve Rebagliati, MD, MBA

Move over Yellow Pages, Google has some exciting - and affordable - tools for marketing your practice.


As a physician, you are painfully aware of how much your profitability depends on a good payer mix - having as many patients insured by more profitable payers, or demographic segments where the collection rate is substantially higher than for other segments. Simply put, you need more of the higher-paying patients.

The same demographic characteristics that make certain payer mixes advantageous correlate with use of the Internet; more affluent groups have better access. That makes it an ideal marketing modality for physicians. Traditionally, physicians have "advertised" via conventional mass media like the Yellow Pages, radio, and even billboards. Marketing via the Internet can deliver your message to more lucrative targets instead of everyone.

One can lament this as "skimming cream," but someone will do it, and those who are successful can cater not only to the well-heeled but have more resources left over to treat more disadvantaged patients.

And online marketing doesn't have to be overly complicated. One way to get a bigger presence on the Web is through Google. Everyone by now is pretty familiar with Google's place as the top search engine in the universe. But Google is also the leader in helping businesspeople reach the right eyes.

Google offers two main ad services of interest to physicians: Google Adwords and Adsense. Google Adwords lets you place online ads that you pay for, but which can be highly targeted to your desired patient segment or service line. The beauty is that you only pay for ads that work. And you only pay for ads targeted to people who actually want your service. This represents an entirely new phenomenon in advertising.

In the past, when you forked over money to pay for that half-page Yellow Pages ad, you knew it might increase your access to new patients, but you would never know by how much, nor would you be able to track your return on investment. The same is true for other mass media. Google Adwords, however, lets you control how much to spend per search term, how much you'll spend per day, and can even let you rotate ads so that you can find which one works well.

It also lets you place your ads by region, so potential patients in your area are the only ones who see it. Or you can advertise worldwide, which might make sense if you're a plastic surgeon whose patients can afford to fly over your competitors to come to you. It's all up to you.

Don't underestimate the power of this tool. Not only can it get patients looking at you, it can also define what they want and what they're willing to pay for. Market research that used to take months now takes hours, at a fraction of the cost. And you can apply these same methods to learn more about the insurance companies and employers that you depend on for patients and payment.

And this is only scratching the surface. Once you choose your keywords for your ad, Adwords lets you test different ad copies against each other for effectiveness. The service provides a robust reporting capability, and you can manage multiple ads and campaigns with multiple budgets. The versatility of this tool grants you leverage that previously was open only to Fortune 500 companies paying seven-figure retainers to Madison Avenue advertising agencies. Now you can manage a worldwide advertising campaign from your desktop for a fraction of the cost.

Google Adsense, on the other hand, is not so much a marketing tool as a way to make a little extra income. If you realize that patients use the Internet to research topics of interest to them, there's no reason why they wouldn't go to your Web site for some of that information.

Through Google Adsense, you can automate a process whereby Google places advertisements of interest to your patients on your Web site. Every time someone clicks on a Google Adsense ad to learn more, Google pays you a commission. Bear in mind you are not being paid for referring a patient to another physician. You are being paid for allowing Google to use your Web site as a billboard.

The wonderful thing about it is that you can provide your patients with a valuable research tool that costs them nothing. The advertisers pay Google for their ad placement; it doesn't cost you or your patients anything. This is the closest thing I know to having a money machine in your practice that generates revenue day and night, even when you sleep, while providing a valuable service.

I have to caution you that there's no get-rich-quick opportunity. Like anything else, you have to know how to use these tools strategically. You also need to check the regulations and laws applicable to your particular practice situation. However, this kind of expertise is so valuable that it behooves you to learn more, or to hire a Web master who knows how to apply these tools. Otherwise, you're just leaving money on your clinic floor for others to pick up.

Steve Rebagliati, MD, MBA, is a practicing physician. He offers these resources, ideas, and tips for using information technology to increase revenues, decrease hassles, and free up time, so physicians like you can succeed in a changing world. He can be reached by e-mail at admin@infotechfordoctors.com or via editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of Physicians Practice.