You’ve made the big decision: joined a health system, hired on at an established practice, or hung out your shingle. What’s left? Attracting patients—and that means marketing.
Until relatively recently, many physicians were reluctant to even talk about marketing, much less embrace it. “Even 10 years ago, advertising in any capacity was considered taboo,” says Eric Chang, M.D., a plastic surgeon in private practice in Columbia, Md. In today’s fast-changing market, Chang notes, newly graduating physicians may be more aware of the need for marketing, but they also must take responsibility for learning the marketing ropes. “Because there are so many local differences,” Chang adds, “you can’t just read a book” to know what will work. Employed physicians will also find that practices and health systems have different preferences, policies and expectations.
Employed? Learn what’s expected
If you’ve been hired into a practice that’s overflowing with new patients and urgently needs you to fill in the gap, you might assume that drumming up interest in your services would be a low priority. But even if your new practice was previously overbooked, the excess is probably insufficient to completely fill your schedule. What’s more, if you’re relying solely on overflow from others in your practice to keep busy, you won’t establish a flow of new patients to keep your practice productive in the future.
“I think an employee joining a practice may feel, ‘The practice markets itself, why do I need to market myself?’” says Chang. “But the truth is, referral patterns have to be solidified for you as a new practitioner. The referring doctor has to feel confident in your skills—not just those of your boss.”
Large health systems with sophisticated marketing programs also count on their physician employees to make personal connections with the community and reinforce local ties.
Nick Crespo, a physician recruiter with Sutter Health in Northern California, agrees. “Participating in local activities in the communities where they’ll be living is key for our physicians, especially in our more rural locations. Radio interviews, tree plantings, health fairs—all of these sorts of activities help build the trust of our local communities.”
On the plus side, it’s easier to figure out what to do in a large organization, because marketing professionals are usually readily available to help newly employed physicians understand what’s expected and promote their practices. “My one word of advice, for almost any health system, is that there’s going to be at least one point person in PR or marketing,” says Sally Foister, director of marketing at Greenville Hospital System (GHS) in Greenville, S.C., who is responsible for guiding newly hired physicians through GHS’s marketing programs. “Talk to them before you do anything because they are there to help you achieve your goals.” Working with internal marketing professionals also helps to avoid unintentional missteps, such as violating the organization’s social media policies or inadvertently contradicting the marketing team’s messages.
What if you’re joining a practice that is too small to have full-time marketers on staff? Outside consultants can fill the gap and help you learn the basics.
“I was lucky that my practice had brought in a consultant to start marketing my practice before I even arrived,” says Ella Lindwall, M.D., a rheumatologist with Advanced Rheumatology in Thousand Oaks, Calif. “When I went with the owner of my practice to meet the physicians at the local hospital, fliers had already been distributed telling everyone about me. I was also already being promoted to the practice’s patients.” Lindwall advises asking for this support if your new practice doesn’t have marketing expertise in-house. “I think it is important to have someone with experience guide you on marketing and take the lead initially because we don’t learn anything about marketing ourselves in med school.”
If you’ve decided to set up a solo practice or have joined a small group and have no marketing department to rely on, figuring out what to do first can be daunting. Connecting with other local physicians at the same career stage can be a great way to accelerate your learning, build your referral network, and identify trustworthy resources like consultants and web developers. Plus, you’ll gain invaluable moral support.
“When I first started out, I called family practitioners and internal medicine doctors, showed up to their offices with lunch and hoped that they would send me patients. I did it for five months before I realized I got almost nothing,” says David Ghozland, M.D., an OB/GYN who set up his private practice in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2007. The problem: Ghozland was newly affiliated at two hospitals where more than 200 established OB/GYNs were already well-connected with the local primary care physicians—and absorbing all of their referrals. Ghozland’s creative solution: He formed his own networking group. He invited other young physicians from a variety of subspecialties to join the group, and they agreed to meet weekly over dinner. Over the next few years, they helped each other build their practices—sharing referrals, inviting new members to join and exchanging ideas.
When Eric Chang left employment with a mid-sized practice to start out on his own, he sought support from a friend, a dermatologist who had set up her private practice just a few years before. “She was not a competitor to me; my presence in the community could actually be helpful to her,” Chang says, noting that dermatologists and plastic surgeons frequently cross-refer. Ultimately, Chang’s friend didn’t just connect him with the community of dermatologists in his area; she became a trusted confidante he could bounce ideas off of as he built his practice. “Knowing that she’d done it herself made me confident that I could do it, too.”
Build your network
For most specialties, building your network in order to attract referrals from other physicians is critical for attracting patients. If you’re not comfortable with reaching out the way Ghozland and Chang did, take heart. Educational events provide some of the best—and most natural—ways to connect with other physicians. “Rheumatology has been revolutionized in the last decade with new, highly effective treatments for diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, vasculitis, and osteoporosis,” says Lindwall. Part of Lindwall’s outreach to local PCPs, geriatricians and dermatologists and other adjacent specialists is to give talks to help them stay abreast of continuing advances in care she can offer patients. These presentations allow her to offer valuable information to other physicians, helping her earn their support.
Attending seminars and presentations for your own education is another relatively painless way to meet more colleagues who could refer you.
“Sometimes people are reluctant to spend $1,000 on a conference—but it’s a write-off, and you never know who you’re going to meet,” says Ghozland.
Attending events can also spark your creativity, helping you think differently about your practice and how to promote it. “If you’re in a room with people who are a little outside the box, your wheels start turning, and you’re suddenly thinking outside the box, too,” adds Ghozland. Even pharmaceutical presentations, notes Lindwall, are opportunities to meet other physicians from a variety of specialties.
Personal interests and non-medical talents can help you make connections, too. For example, Lindwall plans to join a networking group for women doctors in her new community in Southern California. And Ghozland found that he could gain a few referrals from local consulates for emergency care by letting them know he spoke French and Hebrew in addition to English.
Public presence: Start with the web
Referrals from other physicians are still the leading source of patients for most specialists, but even specialists need to communicate directly with the public in some fashion. Today’s educated patient will frequently turn to the internet for more information about a physician before following up to make an appointment. And for primary care physicians—the top of the referral funnel—attracting patients directly is essential. For specialists and primary care alike, a website is usually the best place to start.
“If you’re 25, 30 years old, coming into the market as a physician and trying to attract a patient base, you have to have a web presence,” says Chang. “It’s almost like you don’t exist if you don’t have a site.”
Jamie Cesaretti, M.D., a radiation oncologist with Orlando Physician Specialists in Winter Park, Fla., learned firsthand how marketing to patients online could help build his prostate cancer practice. When he moved into the market a few years ago, Cesaretti learned that even patients who had already been offered treatment somewhere else were still going online to learn more about local radiation oncology practices, and that they carefully considered the information they found on his site. “They were concerned with very specific problems and were going online to explore their options,” Cesaretti says. When patients found his site, many were attracted to Cesaretti’s practice because the site educated them about his local group’s specific expertise in prostate cancer.
Cesaretti’s experience underscores the importance of not just having a site with the information patients need for decision-making, but also having one that ranks highly in search results for your specialty. He and his partners frequently refresh their site’s content and post articles elsewhere online to bring traffic back.
Chang agrees, noting that aesthetics are just one component of a good site. “It’s one thing to make a site that looks nice; it’s another to make a site that looks nice that people can actually find.” He advises colleagues to spend a bit more to get a site that has been designed to rank well for search terms related to your practice. “Everyone wants a site for $300, but when you invest $3,000, you’re paying for expertise behind the design to get the site found.”
The process of making your site rank well on Google and other search engines, known as search engine optimization (SEO), depends heavily on how well your site content meshes with search terms patients use to find your specialty in your area. Regularly updating your site with high-quality content helps ensure your search engine rankings remain high.
Creating at least some original content (for example, by adding a blog to your site) is the best way to ensure the content is personalized and high quality. Says Cesaretti, “Marketing groups write content for practices, but Google has gotten better at discerning which posts are ‘vanilla’ marketing. If it’s genuine content by a real, local doctor, it will show up higher.”
In a large organization, you may not have a separate website for your practice, but you’ll usually have a page or even a multi-page profile on your employer’s main site. Often, there are opportunities to add personal touches that will help you express your care philosophy and connect with prospective patients. At Greenville Hospital System, for example, each physician’s website profile includes several pages with background information, a picture, and an introductory video that is also posted on YouTube.
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Embrace directories and ratings sites
When patients search on a specialty in a state or city, it’s not unusual for the top results not to be physician sites at all. Listings from Google Places and the biggest physician directory and rating sites (Healthgrades, Vitals) often appear in search results higher even than the major health systems and payers in the area. But because these directories rely on public databases that may not have current data, it’s not unusual for a physician’s information to be incorrect, causing hassles for patients that rely on the data and undermining physician marketing efforts.
Fortunately, these directories make it easy for physicians to claim their listings and correct erroneous contact information and other problems. Claiming and updating your directory listings also allows you to spiff up your listing with a photo and even add a link back to your web page (an excellent SEO boost). And claiming and updating your directory listings is free, so it’s something every physician should do.
Another advantage of claiming your listings: many of the sites will use your registration information to notify you if patients have added new ratings or comments. For those that don’t—and to monitor what’s posted about you elsewhere on the web—sign up for the free Google Alerts service, which tracks keywords you select and alerts you via email when related postings appear.
When medical rating sites first appeared on the web a few years back, many doctors were nervous about the prospect of patients reviewing them and publishing their opinions online. The prevailing attitude among many doctors was to ignore the sites and hope they’d go away. But that view has shifted as the ratings sites gained popularity. Now, physicians are starting to see the benefits of embracing patient ratings. Positive ratings can be a real boon for referrals.
“Patient feedback is one of the most cost-effective ways of advertising these days,” says Chang. “Directory sites are becoming more useful and more targeted.” Chang encourages his patients to review his practice online, especially on a directory called RealSelf, which is focused on plastic surgery.
Give a little bit
Getting patients to talk about you and your practice positively online or to their friends is perhaps the most powerful way to expand your patient base. But in a 15-minute visit, it can be a challenge to make an impression worth talking about.
One way to be memorable: Establish a personal connection. “I knew a doctor who said that in the first 60 seconds of the visit, he can make the patient feel like they’ve been with me for 15 minutes,” recalls Ghozland. “He did it by remembering little details about the patient, and taking chart notes to ask them about at their next visit.” Ghozland applied the ideas to his own practice. “It’s about really making your patients enjoy coming to you, making yourself open. That’s how you get referrals.”
Charitable opportunities can also lead to new patients and more procedure revenue, and they can be found at organizations of all sizes. For example, free screenings are a way to give back to patients who might otherwise not get tested for disease. And in some cases, testing will lead to a need for treatment and new revenue for the physicians who donate their time. “Our practice is working with one of our hospitals to create a free prostate cancer screening test program,” says Raul Hernandez, urologist and partner in Golden Gate Urology in San Francisco. The NFL and American Urological Association’s “Know Your Stats” program provided the template for their efforts and has made it possible for urology practices and hospitals of all sizes to piggyback on the program’s publicity and provide free screenings to thousands of men who might otherwise go untested.
By some estimates, nearly 70 percent of Americans have a Facebook page and nearly 15 percent of American internet users use Twitter. So it’s no surprise that physicians are exploring social media as a tool for connecting with patients. “They hold almost limitless potential,” says Chang about Twitter and Facebook. “It’s a matter of spending the time and energy and making sure that you’re addressing the correct market.”
The time and energy required, though, are no small matters—especially for private practice physicians. It’s important to know what you’ll be getting into if you decide to connect with patients via the social web. “Facebook and Twitter are extremely time consuming and can put you at risk because you may not seem caring if you don’t answer a post fast enough,” says Hernandez. Information you post may also be interpreted as medical advice, so it’s imperative to have clear guidelines about what can be posted on your practice’s page and to monitor patient postings to be sure none unintentionally breach their privacy.
Theresa Varughese, practice liaison with Carolina Cardiology Consultants, a wholly-owned practice of Greenville Hospital System, found that a team approach enables her practice to manage the fast-response demands of social media. The team monitors the practice’s page for patient requests or comments that need a response. “We can quickly respond to issues patients post—‘I’m really sorry you had this experience, can I call you to talk about it? I’d like to get your feedback’—and avoid the patient feeling ignored.”
A physician champion, a sports cardiologist whose practice serves many young athletes, is a key member of Carolina Cardiology’s social media team. He is an avid user and early adopter of social media who’s fully comfortable using it every day. “He recently spoke at a national conference, and he tweeted about it the entire time,” says Varughese.
Becoming your practice’s social media champion can help you build your own panel and boost your practice’s profile. Some large organizations even compensate physicians who help with social media. The key is to work with others in your practice, especially marketing professionals, to stay within practice guidelines. “If one of our physicians wants to set up a practice Facebook page, we help them figure out what is appropriate and what isn’t. We have guidelines covering legal issues and things like, ‘don’t have an argument online,’” adds Foister from GHS, who also notes that problems are rare.
Besides establishing content boundaries, just finding enough content can be a challenge, especially for specialty practices. Varughese and her team solved it by supplementing their in-house postings with a purchased stream of cardiology content from UbiCare.
One of the biggest challenges for physicians in marketing their practices—much as with all things business—is maintaining interest and commitment. Too often, physicians set up their websites or hand their marketing programs off to a consultant and think, done. But marketing is never really done. Websites must be repeatedly optimized, directory listings regularly updated, and you must participate in your community continuously to be known to potential patients moving into your area.
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“Doctors have trouble following up” on business goals, says Ghozland. “We get busy, hire others to help with marketing, but then fail to follow up and the leads drop off.” He solves the problem by dedicating a day each week to running the business of his practice. “I go into the office. I have a to-do list. Every month, I have a goal.” While revenue may be lost in the short term, Ghozland is investing in his practice for the future. “I may lose money that day by not seeing patients, but in the long run, it’s better for my practice.”
Laurie Morgan, MBA, is a medical practice management and health care industry consultant with Capko & Company.