It’s a common challenge: In a tough economy, do you spend to increase patient revenue or save to keep your practice afloat?
“In tougher economic times, you need to get more aggressive about educating your referring physicians and your patient population, both existing and new patients, on what quality services you can provide, to ensure that you get better throughput into your medical practice,” said Robert Glazer, CEO of ENT and Allergy Associates, LLP, a 110-physician practice in the New York metropolitan region.
The process needn’t be expensive; an investment of 5 percent of a practice’s budget is a good start, said Max Reiboldt, CPA, president and CEO of the Coker Group, a national health care consulting firm for hospitals and physicians. But how to market effectively? Otolaryngologists and consultants interviewed by ENT Today shared their top marketing practices.
Patient and Physician Goodwill
“You can spend a lot of dollars on marketing, but you can also do a lot that costs very little,” said Kenneth T. Hertz, CMPE, principal of the Medical Group Management Association’s Health Care Consulting Group. His advice is to make sure your practice is doing everything it can to offer the best patient care and customer service. If a patient has a 2:00 p.m. appointment, make sure he or she is seen by 2:20 p.m. at the latest. If you’ve recently seen a child who has persistent strep throat or who just had a tonsillectomy, call the parents and ask how the child is doing, he advised.
“Wouldn’t that exceed a parent’s wildest expectations?” Hertz said. “There is nothing more effective than positive word of mouth for a physician practice. The female patient who just left your office is going to tell all of the mothers in her tennis club how timely, friendly, and helpful your staff was in answering all the questions she had about her bill and insurance coverage,” Hertz added.
Ringing endorsements of your practice must also be cultivated with referring physicians. If little Johnny is referred to you from a primary care physician or pediatrician, send a timely follow-up letter to that doctor thanking him or her for that referral, Hertz said. On occasion, send articles of interest to referring pediatricians and family physicians, highlighting key passages to personalize the mailing, and indicate that you can answer their patients’ questions about, say, effective versus ineffective treatments for sinusitis.
“Those are the things that should happen every day that don’t cost a penny and have huge impact on a practice’s goodwill,” Hertz said.
Once your practice has all of its internal operations humming, you can explore marketing and advertising initiatives. A seasonal informational campaign about allergies, sinus infections or tonsillitis is one idea you might try. Hertz offered a valuable tip for practices using radio or television: Pay for it to run for one or two weeks, take a week off, run it for another week, then take two weeks off before running it for a subsequent week. This approach, he said, has the same impact as continuously running, and paying for, the ad each week.
Traditional advertising is particularly well suited to getting the word out about a wide variety of ancillary services, such as cosmetic and facial surgery, audiology services, allergy care and sleep therapies, said Reiboldt.
Otolaryngologists who devote the majority of their practice to cosmetic procedures can’t rely on patients referred from primary care physicians, so they will likely want to rely more heavily on overt advertising in broadcast or print media than traditional otolaryngologists would, Reiboldt said. “I still believe that traditional print advertising is worthwhile, particularly focusing on niche marketing to particular demographics, perhaps targeting your ad to a limited service region of a national lifestyle magazine,” he said. Direct mail brochures sent to targeted zip codes are also worth considering, he added.
Delivering an educational talk about sinusitis, for example, or ENT problems that affect the aging population at a church, community center or hospital, is another way to promote your practice, said Duane J. Taylor, MD, medical director of the Washington, D.C.- area Le Visage ENT & Facial Plastic Surgery, LLC. “Hospitals want to fulfill their community affairs mission, and they might even do all the marketing for the event at no charge,” Dr. Taylor said.
Some companies offer flat-screen TV platforms from which to offer customized, attractive messaging and visuals, such as educational presentations on allergies, hearing aids and snoring therapies, Glazer said. “You should, in every way you can, when you have a patient base that’s walking through your practice, indicate what other services you provide that these patients may not know about,” for the sinus patient whose mother has hearing issues, for instance, or the wife whose husband snores, Glazer said.
Otolaryngologists who find themselves listed on a “Top Docs” or “Best Doctors” list can certainly put that information on websites and post it in reception areas and exam rooms. Dr. Taylor was contacted by The Washingtonian Magazine, which surveys local physicians about what doctors they would send members of their families to in each of 39 medical specialties. He made the magazine’s “Top Doctors 2010” list and posted a banner and press release about it on his website.
It probably doesn’t matter which “Best of” list you’re on, because most patients don’t know the differences between them, said Jerry Mark, president of Philadelphia area-based LeadNation.com, an online marketing consulting firm for physicians. “But if you’re on such a list, you don’t keep it a secret. It couldn’t hurt buying a $200 plaque that announces it, for your patients to see,” Mark said.
A patient-friendly website has become a critical marketing tool for any physician practice. “Whatever we did in the past, we need to change in the new digital world and make investments in technologies,” Glazer said.
Your website should have interesting information, reflecting your specialized services and credentials, Dr. Taylor said. For example, he specializes in balloon sinuplasty, which he says is not common in his region. His website contains detailed information about the procedure, including an animated demonstration.
Dr. Taylor’s website also includes testimonials about his services, which are based on feedback he collects from internal surveys of his patients.
Glazer said it’s worthwhile to engineer a secure messaging web portal for your practice, which allows patients to log on, book appointments, upload their demographic and medical histories prior to an office visit, refill prescriptions and view test results. “Pricing for services like this have gotten cheaper. In a down economy, people are willing to sell services for less,” he said.
Another important technological investment is search engine optimization, in which consultants will work with your practice to make sure your website pops up higher on the list when a consumer searches Google or Yahoo for “Otolaryngologist,” “ENT,” or a similar search word (See “Stand Out on the Web”).
“You can have a website that looks like the Sistine Chapel, with Flash animation and dazzling visual displays, but the question is: Where are your potential patients looking online?” said Peter Kent, author of Search Engine Optimization for Dummies, and CEO of LeadNation. “Nationally, there are 50,000 people per month searching for ‘ENT’ online. That’s where your first line of attack needs to be. Your website needs to come up when they search,” he said.