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Increasing competition and declining reimbursements are compelling reasons to market a medical practice. Yet to community oncologists who depend strictly on referrals, marketing may seem an unnecessary expense. “Yes, referring physicians may tell patients you're the best,” says Kim Woofter, practice administrator for Michiana Hematology Oncology (MHO), a 15-physician practice that serves North Central Indiana and Southwestern Michigan from seven locations. “But today's well-informed consumers will check you out online and ask their friends and neighbors.”
Having been trained in evidence-based medicine, physicians may equate the success of a marketing plan with an increased number of new patients. Yet, physicians may also want to consider the value of name recognition and minimal out-migration of established patients. “The care physicians provide speaks to their actual quality,” says Woofter. “Packaging yourself attractively speaks to your perceived quality, and consumers feel they are getting something better.”
MHO employs a marketing firm to help brand their practice. The goal is to imprint it in the public's mind through repeated, consistent messages. Two new MHO facilities housed in hospital centers raised the question of how to maintain their brand. “I liken it to the Intel concept,” says Woofter. “A successful branding of our practice makes us synonymous with quality regardless of location.”
A marketing firm may not be able to grasp every nuance of the individual practice. Therefore, it's important to choose one that offers a la carte options for communicating different messages within a consistent framework. Woofter advises avoiding the monthly retainer. Instead of the calendar, campaigns should revolve around an event, perhaps the arrival of a new associate, or a theme, such as the availability of big-city medicine close to home.
Advertising, an important component of marketing, can be costly. Yet unlike individuals, marketing firms can negotiate lower rates for air time and set limits on when a competitor's ad may run. Firms can also negotiate no-cost space next to a paid newspaper ad. “We purchased a section of a monthly newspaper tab for a year for a physician's question-and-answer column,” Woofter says. “By supplying the questions and answers, we provided the education we wanted consumers to have.”
As the liaison to her practice's marketing firm, Woofter has learned many lessons:
Above all, don't hesitate to change firms when the relationship no longer works. Or, as some practices do, consider bringing marketing inhouse.
“Traditional marketing as well as the tools that measure the return on investment can be incredibly expensive,” says Frederick M. Briccetti, MD, who practices with New Hampshire Hematology-Oncology (NHOH), an 11-physician practice with five locations. A large practice by New Hampshire standards, their marketing budget nonetheless pales when compared with the large tertiary cancer centers in the region. “After going the traditional marketing route for a while, we asked ourselves how much good we were doing and then began exploring alternative ways to promote our practice,” says Briccetti.
Here are some cost-effective strategies that NHOH has used successfully and that other practices can adopt:
As effective as ‘soft’ marketing strategies can be, physicians opening a new practice in a competitive area may still benefit from a traditional marketing plan. “A media person can be helpful, but remain mindful of the image you present,” says Briccetti. “Also, before outsourcing design work for your logo and written material, make sure you own the content, just in case you terminate the relationship.”
On a day-to-day basis, each member of a physician's staff has numerous opportunities to market the practice. “Every patient is a billboard,” says John Sichel, RPH, PD, a retired marketing specialist who volunteers to help cancer centers communicate better with referring physicians. “If your receptionist is abrupt or unfriendly, you can be sure that will get back to the referring doctor.”