American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

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10 tips to make marketing work for your practice

From the September 1998 ACP-ASIM Observer, copyright 1998 by the American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine.

By Christine Kuehn Kelly

Eugene Belogorsky, ACP-ASIM Member, knew he had a service that could help patients suffering from obstructive sleep apnea, but he was having trouble getting the word out.

Part of the problem was that Dr. Belogorsky, a pulmonologist in Santa Rosa, Calif., was the only physician in the area treating the condition. He had to educate patients not only about his services, but about the condition itself. So he created a brochure explaining sleep apnea and how he could treat it through individualized programs that focused on losing weight, reducing tobacco and alcohol consumption, and using a continuous positive airway pressure device to facilitate nighttime breathing.

To make sure that he was reaching prospective patients, Dr. Belogorsky distributed the brochures in all types of businesses, from Laundromats to health food stores. In addition, alternative practitioners such as acupuncturists gave the brochures to their clients. As a result, Dr. Belogorsky said, patients came into his office "with the brochure in hand," and the number of patients he treated increased substantially.

In the past, physicians often viewed marketing solely as a way to attract new patients and grow their business. Today, however, as health plans and employers become choosy about which doctors they'll work with and as patients take more of their business to providers like acupuncturists and chiropractors, many physicians are looking at marketing techniques to keep their appointment books full.

Experts say that in addition to drawing new business, a good marketing plan can help keep existing patients happy by making them feel good about their physician, an important factor in a competitive environment. "If doctors don't know how to appeal to patients," explained Priscilla Clark, a marketing consultant in Concord, Mass., "they'll lose the market."

Here are some ways to market your practice and keep it thriving:

1. Start with the obvious. Experts say that an attractive, freestanding sign is the number-one way to market a practice, and that advertising in The Yellow Pages is a close second. Keith Borglum, a practice management consultant with Professional Marketing and Management in Santa Rosa, Calif., said that when you advertise in the phone book, include not only your practice's name, location (include geographic landmarks), hours and credentials of your physicians, but try to differentiate your practice by highlighting the specialty services that you offer.

2. Cover the basics in your brochures. Brochures should contain all basic information such as office hours, a map, your Web address (if you have one) and your procedures for writing prescriptions and offering emergency care. Not only will this help market your practice, it can free your office staff from answering frequently asked questions and help avoid potential patient misunderstandings.

Ann Nye, a practice consultant in Lakewood, Colo., suggests that physicians create a "welcome folder" for new patients that includes a welcome letter, office policies and procedures, insurance information and any patient education physicians feel is necessary. (Every piece of information released should have the practice name and address neatly printed on it.) She said that presenting these materials in an attractive package helps establish you and your colleagues as being committed to patients.

You can also use brochures or newsletters to get business from another potential market: other physicians. John H. Wertheimer, FACP, a Philadelphia cardiologist, said that he sends a newsletter to referring physicians. "If you want to expand your referral base," he said, "you need to stay on top of the game."

3. Watch what you spend. According to Mr. Borglum, most physicians are spending too much of their gross revenues—about 12%—on marketing. If your practice is not expanding, Mr. Borglum said, you should be spending between 3% and 5% of revenues on marketing efforts. If you are expanding your practice, he said, that figure should be closer to 7%. Consider spending more only if your practice is entering a new market.

To measure the success of your efforts, Mr. Borglum suggested looking at the bottom line: You should get a 3-1 return on every dollar you spend on marketing. If your efforts aren't producing that kind of return, it's time to consider changing strategies.

4. Get help from others. A variety of organizations such as hospitals and health plans are often willing to help you market your practice's services.

"We provide significant support for the physicians in our system," said Will Ferniany, who conducts marketing for the University of Pennsylvania Health System. The health system pays for billboards and newspaper ads for its physician practices. (Some of the practices are owned by the health system, while others are merely affiliated.) It also makes sure that the practices are represented at local health fairs and other special programs, such as a recent all-day women's health seminar. Practices owned by the university are also listed on the health system's Web site, which Mr. Ferniany said results in roughly 40 physician appointments each month for the system's physicians.

Even if your practice isn't part of a large system, you might still be able to get some marketing help. Typically, hospitals help through health seminars that highlight one of your areas of expertise or through health fairs that allow your practice to promote its services to the community. Some hospitals also have Web pages that promote their affiliated practices.

5. Create a Web site. A Web page can be a useful component of patient education and provide necessary information about a practice. "A Web page allows you to talk about your practice in a way you never could over the phone or in The Yellow Pages," said Paul A. Fitzgerald, MD, a San Francisco endocrinologist. (His Web site can be found atwww.fitzgeraldmd.com.) "Patients rarely know about our enormous amount of training and experience. This is a way to get the word out to both current and prospective patients."

Dr. Fitzgerald said that his site has been viewed by thousands of users around the world and has attracted several new patients, helping him to recoup the $1,000 or so that it cost him to go online. The Web site contains his curriculum vitae and photo, directions to his office, information on appointments and endocrinology news.

6. Measure patient outcomes. "We realized we had to know ourselves better before we could tell others how good we were," said James D. Buck, ACP-ASIM Member, an internist at Westgate Medical Group in Milwaukee. To do so, the practice converted to electronic records, which now allows it to more easily gather data on topics like the number of preventive medicine procedures it performs. "The new system will show us how we compare with the norm and will permit us to market that information directly to our insurers," Dr. Buck said.

If your practice isn't ready to invest in electronic medical records, there are other options. Physicians, for example, can get involved with paid clinical outcome studies conducted by universities and pharmaceutical companies. Experts like Mr. Borglum suggest promoting your involvement in such studies through a sign in your waiting room. Such involvement with medical research may impress some patients, he said, and could even bring in enrollment subjects as new patients.

7. Build relationships with employers. Positive relationships with large employers can have far-reaching effects. Employers are not shy about telling managed care organizations that their employees are using a doctor who isn't on the panel and will often make suggestions as to who should be added. To get the attention of employers in your area, try volunteering staff services for an employer's health fair.

8. Talk to health plans. These days, patients have few qualms about calling an insurer's 800 number to pass on their perceptions about a physician. To help combat any negative press, be in regular contact with managed care companies to tell your side of the story and protect your patient base.

Andrea Eliscu, president of Medical Marketing Inc. in Winter Park, Fla., suggests calling the medical directors of health plans to arrange a meeting. "Discuss what sets your practice apart," she said, "like the recent recruit who is doubled-boarded or the new electronic medical record system that speeds claims processing. Explain how you make an effort to understand your patient base and how you have met with major employers. If it's an insurer whose panel you're not on, ask what you can do to join. Communicate what you have to offer that would be of value to the HMO. For example, you may perform a procedure that is more cost-effective than one used by other practices."

9. Market elective care. There will always be patients who are willing to pay out-of-pocket for medical services not covered by their insurers. If physicians provide elective services such as injection therapy for spider veins or elective treatments for conditions like incontinence, they should let their patients know these services are available. Market these services directly to patients during consultations, taking care not to be overzealous. If appropriate, provide brochures and a book of elective services in the reception area and make sure office staff can answer any questions concerning these elective services.

10. Consider using a consultant. Consultants can help you analyze current and future markets, devise marketing strategies to communicate to these markets and measure marketing outcomes. Be warned, however, that most consultants aren't cheap. Expect to pay about $150 an hour or $1,000 for a full-day consult. For help in choosing a consultant, call your local medical society for referrals or check with the American Medical Association's Alliance for Healthcare Strategy and Marketing (www.alliancehlth.org), which can provide you with a list of its members.

Christine Kuehn Kelly is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer specializing in health care.

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