Chapter 5: Marketing your practice – how to get more patients
|"Everyone lives by selling something."
- Robert Louis Stevenson.
The word marketing is still taboo for many doctors, and many physicians confuse marketing with advertising. We need to remember that the role physicians play is unique, and that marketing techniques adopted by other industries are not appropriate for doctors. What you need to concentrate on is "practice building”– which is a perfectly ethical activity of promoting your practice that successful doctors have been using for many years. Traditionally, the only acceptable marketing allowed was "word of mouth”, but today doctors can use additional avenues to promote themselves ethically. The purpose of practise building is to let potential patients and referral sources know who you are, what you do, and when and where you do it.
Why should doctors worry about promoting their practice? After all, if you are good then won’t the patients automatically come to you ? If you are the only provider of your particular expertise in the region, then you may not need to worry too much about marketing. But today, doctors compete for patients and if you want to see your practice grow and flourish, you need to market yourself.
Satisfied patients are the best word-of-mouth marketing tool a physician can have because they tell others about the positive experiences they have had with you. In fact, the major premise of this book is that if you can make your practice patient-centric and focus on keeping your patients happy, you will become a successful physician. You should make every effort to exceed your patients’ expectations regarding their health care. For example, if you phone patients at home after surgery and check on their conditions, you can create a "wow” experience for the patient. Patients who receive a personal phone call from their physician will almost certainly tell dozens of other people about it, generating word-of-mouth referrals. This strategy is easy, costs nothing, and is extremely effective.
Should you attempt to market directly to the public ? If you want your practice to grow, the simple answer is - Yes ! The real question is not "should we do it?,” but "how do we market to patients?” Since doctors in India cannot advertise , you need to select your marketing tools carefully.
There are many avenues open to you. For example, volunteering at the community level can bring positive attention. As an advisor or board member for a public service agency, your name can become recognized as a resource for health -related information. Thus, the local media are more likely to seek a quote or an interview from an Indian Cancer Society board member than from a less prominent oncologist in town. The best way to market is to give something away every day – and giving away your time, services and expertise for free can be very effective !
One of the best and least expensive way to market your practice is to attract media attention. This can allow you to attract free public relations that would normally cost thousands of dollars if you had to pay for it and, more importantly, can attract even hundreds of new patients to your practice. Remember that the media are always looking for news – which means that if you want them to cover you, what you do should be new ! For example, if your clinic has bought the first laser for tattoo removal in the city; or you have devised and successfully performed a new operation, you have a story that will be of interest to the readers of newspapers.
You need to understand what the media wants when trying to pitch your story to them – remember that thousands of stories are competing for the limited space in a newspaper. Try to look at things from the reporter’s point of view if you want to succeed in getting coverage. You need to be aware of their job and their needs ( for example, what the difference between a news story and a feature story is; and what their deadline is). They are professionals too, and if you help them to do their job well , they are much more likely to turn to you when they need information for a health story. Many doctors now also employ PR (Public Relations ) firms to ensure that their name appears in the media as often as possible.
Creating an event can help to create a buzz if you do it properly . Rather than just sending a press release like everyone else, if you have a new state-of-the-art piece of medical equipment, invite the media for a free demonstration. Make it exciting by inviting local celebrities . Whenever possible, have a patient who has used or experienced the equipment or technology – this makes it more newsworthy.
Contribute articles on health to magazines and newspapers. The public is usually thirsty for well-written information. If you can arrange to write a health column for the newspaper, do so ! A regularly contributing author to the local newspaper can become a household name.
Offer to give lectures to the public on your areas of expertise . Forums like Rotary clubs and Lions can be very useful. Print patient educational brochures on the common medical problems you see in your practise. Encourage your patients to take these home – this will help to increase awareness in the community about the services you offer . You can also publish a newsletter and distribute this free to your patients. This will help to keep them aware of what’s new in medicine – and about the new services you offer. In today’s wired world, your website can also be a very effective avenue of marketing your practice.
If you are attached to a hospital , use the hospital as a marketing partner. Since both doctors and hospitals want to attract patients, you should develop the kind of relationships that will allow you to share in the benefits of hospital marketing activities. Hospital marketing departments recognize that the best "product” available for them to promote is their physicians. You should want to be the one they call when they need an expert to be interviewed on the local news. Being interviewed as an expert in your field is one of the lowest cost marketing avenues open to a practice.
Learn what your hospital wants and likes in a physician. Volunteer to do screenings and public lectures. Keep the hospital marketing director informed when you do something noteworthy so they can promote your actions through their public relations efforts. Hospital marketing and public relations departments struggle to find material to promote to the press and to include in their own advertising. By keeping them supplied with this material which highlights your expertise, you will become their "go-to” person, and their promotions will benefit you.
Finally, if you are a consultant, remember that marketing to your referral base – the doctors who refer to you - is extremely important . Even with today’s educated and choosy consumers, tertiary care is still largely driven by referral. You must work to retain your referring relationships and to develop new ones. The most important aspect after ensuring that referred patients are returned to their original doctor’s care is promptly reporting the consultation results to the referring physician. Referring physicians appreciate hearing promptly from consultants and many are likely to discontinue sending patients to you if they do not hear back about their consults from you . Remember that referring is often a question of building relationships and once you receive the referrals, you need to ensure that the relationship continues. Share your accomplishments with your referring physicians. For example, send a copy of an article in a professional journal with a personal note relating it to a referred patient, if possible.
It is helpful to keep in touch with referring physicians in a positive fashion, for example by sending a congratulations note on something that the physician did or even something the physician’s children accomplished. This creates positive name recognition and will encourage the referring physician to continue the referral relationship. Remember to be friends with your referring doctor’s office staff as well ! It’s a good idea to give them a guided tour of your clinic, so they are familiar with your practice . If you know their names , this can help you considerably – so cultivate them with care.
Marketing is a continuous process, and a true marketing initiative involves educating patients, public and referring doctors as to why you are their best choice !
When we think of brands, we usually think of consumer goods, such as Coke , Pepsi and Nike. Manufacturers of fast moving consumer goods have learnt that letting customers know who you are is critical to expanding their position in the market place. While branding strategies have long been used in large industries, they are being increasingly employed by todays medical practices.
The large internationally renowned US medical centers, such as Mayo, Johns Hopkins and the Cleveland Clinic have done an excellent job in selling their "brand”, which is why rich Indians spend lakhs to fly down to these centers for their treatment. In India, corporate hospitals such as Apollo Hospital have started following in their footsteps. However, you dont have to be a large center to create a brand identity that sustains your practice over time. You too can develop a singular identity through branding and create an edge over the competition.
Branding is the big picture view that a doctor presents. Its who you are - and how you look to the community, your professional colleagues, employees, patients and future patients. Branding is about your image, and developing and delivering a perception that you create. Traditionally, a doctor’s reputation has always been his "brand ".As a doctor , your brand is you, and branding is a marketing strategy that works well if you follow these basic principles.
Focus on what you excel. The first step to creating a brand is to identify who you are and what you do best. Analyze the scope of services and explore your options. What is it that your practice does best and who do you want to attract? For example, in our clinic, we would like to focus on infertile couples who need advanced reproductive techniques such as IVF and ICSI. Not only are these much more challenging patients, treating them gives us more satisfaction, as we can use the cutting edge of medical technology to treat complex problems – a task few other infertility clinics can handle.
Understand the existing markets. When you have clearly identified the service and image you want to focus on, it is time to get a better understanding of the market. If you are a primary care physician and care for a large number of patients with addictive disorders, this may be your brand venue, whereas another primary care practice may focus on obese patients and nutrition and diet.
Be consistent. Creating a branding strategy and maintaining brand identify require an enormous long-term commitment. This is not a one-shot deal. Once you imprint your brand on the public you must support it consistently. It needs to become the overriding philosophy of your practice. Remember that it takes considerable time to penetrate the market and create brand recognition – and once this is accomplished, it must be continually reinforced.
Though branding has been used for large health systems and corporate America, it is a new concept for private practice physicians. It is a powerful tool that will soon become commonplace in the future. A number of enterprising individuals in India have successfully branded themselves ( names such as Amitabh Bachchan, Shiamak Davar, Anjali Mukherjee readily come to mind) and doctors such as Dr R K Anand are now following suit.
A strong brand identity that is built and protected over time can create a long-term, consistent image of quality and value. Inevitably, you will attract more patients, based on how you have influenced them with your branding strategies. Those doctors who take branding action now will be tomorrows leaders.
What about using advertising to attract more patients ? It’s well known that the most effective form of advertising is word of mouth. How we care for our patients and how they perceive our care is what brings us more patients. The next best form of advertising is to our colleagues, by communicating our experience and expertise via scientific presentations and/or publications. In the past, this much was enough. The Code of Ethics of the Medical Council of India still does not allow doctors to advertise , and most senior doctors in India look upon advertising with suspicion. After all, doctors are professionals – why should they behave like shopkeepers in order to attract customers ?
However, times have changed, and we need to change with them. Gone are the days when patients had a family doctor whom they could blindly trust, and who would provide medical care for them from cradle to grave. Today’s reality is that medical care is often provided on a fragmented , piecemeal basis by numerous specialists, and the patient needs to learn to get the best medical care for himself. This is why it is so important that he has access to information on available doctors, so that he can select the best one for himself .
Most doctors feel that advertising is unethical , but we need to look at the reality more carefully. How are young doctors who have just started practise going to get patients ? How will patients know of their skills and their expertise ? Many young professionals, who have spent long years to qualify and taken loans to start practise, simply cannot afford to sit back and starve till patients arrive on their doorstep. This is why new doctors feel they have to resort to unethical practices like cuts and kick-backs today – many of which have been institutionalized by their seniors. It is more honest to allow them to attract patients by allowing them to advertise – at least this is open and transparent.
Preventing advertising favours senior doctors – those who have an established reputation, with many hospital attachments, and lots of patients. They will do their best to maintain the status quo by prohibiting advertising – not to protect patients as they claim, but to prevent new doctors from competing with them, thus safeguarding their own interests.
Since senior doctors form the " medical establishment” , which sets the rules for all doctors , the Medical Council of India code on ethics still prohibits advertising by doctors. However, this code was developed many years ago, and needs to be updated so that it is responsive to the needs of today’s patients and doctors. It is worth remembering that doctors were not allowed to advertise by the powerful American Medical Association ( AMA) in the US as well, many years ago. The reason this changed is that some courageous doctors took the AMA to court, and the Supreme Court ruled in their favour, declaring that not allowing doctors to advertise was unfair on them – and also unfair to patients , who need access to information on doctors, so they can select the best for themselves . Today, the AMA has promulgated guidelines for ethical advertising by physicians, and these guidelines permit physician advertising , provided it is not false, deceptive or fraudulent. Maybe we could learn from them !
To keep readers abreast of new medical guidelines worldwide, this is what the Council of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta says about physician advertising in its Code of Ethics. " The Council…believes that clear and accurate information about physician services benefits all parties in the health care system. "Advertising falls within the definition of "freedom of expression", and any constraints to this freedom should be minimal and reasonable. " They clearly specify what is acceptable , and state that "Advertising is just one of the professional activities subject to the Code of Ethics”.
It is true that advertising has a downside . For one, advertising may cause doctors to start treating their patients as clients or customers , rather than as patients – and this is a shame. For another, some ads will be dishonest, but at least they will be in black and white, where they can be refuted and debated – and a doctor making false claims can be taken to task. This is far better than making tall claims privately within the four walls of a clinic and taking the patient for a ride.
What about the risk that patients would be lured to the doctors with the fanciest ads, rather than the "best doctors” ? To answer this, think about how patients select doctors in India today . Usually they do so either by reputation or referral , and neither of these are reliable criteria ! Allowing reputed and reliable doctors to advertise will help to enlighten and educate patients – and a good example of such educational advertisements are the ads placed by the Cleveland Clinic, USA in the Times of India. However, advertising can be very expensive – and may not be cost-effective at all. You need to experiment with different options, and track how effective they are, so that you know what works best for your practice.
We live in a fast changing global village, and we can no longer afford to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world ! Since India has an abundance of qualified and skilled doctors who can provide state of the art medical care at a fraction of the cost which doctors in the West charge, there is tremendous scope to export our medical services. If we learn to advertise Indian medical services worldwide effectively, we will be able attract patients from all over the world , and medical services can become a big foreign exchange earner for India.