Marketing Is Not a Luxury ― Marketing Is a Necessity

TMA's Latest Book Shows How Physicians Can Help Their Practice Thrive

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Practice Management Feature — October 2017 

Tex Med. 2017;113(10):43–46.

By Sean Price

Most physicians are also business people. On top of treating patients, they have to make sure enough paying customers walk through the clinic door each day. 

About 58 percent of physicians still work in small practices made up of 10 or fewer doctors, according to the American Medical Association's 2016 Physician Practice Benchmark Survey. Those physicians constantly face a basic marketing question: What's the best way to sell myself and my business to the community? 

Because few physicians studied business principles, many won't know the answer. (By the way, there is no one best way to market every practice.) And that's why the Texas Medical Association is publishing a new book this month titled Marketing Smart: A Guide for Medical Practices

The book is written by Kristin W. Parker, whose experience in medical marketing started almost by accident. In 2007, she left her job as a pharmaceutical sales representative to take care of twin daughters. One physician she knew hired her to do what she thought would be a part-time job focused on a specific marketing problem ― how to improve referrals from other doctors.

"I thought I'd be signing on for something easy, a kind of part-time mommy job," Ms. Parker said.

As it turned out, boosting referrals was much harder than it looked. And the job would not be part-time for long. It quickly exploded into a nationwide business, Lexicon Medical, that has trained more than 200 marketing representatives who work on behalf of physicians. So far, the company has focused on improving referrals for specialist physicians, but in 2018 it will expand into social media marketing. Ms. Parker says both of these marketing strategies have the same goal.

"We're developing relationships on behalf of our physicians," she said.

Texas Medicine interviewed Ms. Parker to discuss the book and get tips for physicians looking to improve their professional visibility.

Texas Medicine: What happened when you first got going in medical marketing? 

Ms. Parker: I fell flat on my face when I started doing this because I thought it would be just like pharmaceutical sales, which came relatively easy to me. This was so much harder.

Texas Medicine: How did you solve the problem?

Ms. Parker: I started to invite [physicians and medical staff people] to lunch and asking them, "Can you please tell me what I need to do, because I don't know what I'm doing. And who do I need to be talking to?" … I was realizing that it wasn't the doctors the majority of the time who would decide where a patient was referred. It was done by the referral coordinator, something I had never even heard of before. These were people who have the authority to send patients wherever they want to send patients. [My company did an informal study that found] that 28 percent of the time, it's the physician making the decision. But 30 percent of the time it's the referral coordinator, and 42 percent of the time it's the nurses or medical assistants. So that's why it was so hard at first ― I didn't have my audience figured out.

Texas Medicine: How did you use that information? 

Ms. Parker: I applied the formula that always works for marketing, which is get the right message to the right person the right number of times (see "Marketing Success"). I figured out who the right person was ― that was important. And then I figured out my frequency. So once I figured out how often I should be visiting people, I figured out there was a different frequency level that I needed to be visiting each one of these people. And there would be a variety of messages, depending on your audience. If you were talking to a physician [who's doing the referring], you'll have a certain message. If you're talking to a referral coordinator, it's a very administrative-type message. It's going to change. It's not just a one-hit wonder: Here's my message, and see you later. 

Texas Medicine: There are many different types of marketing, like print ads, television, radio, and social media. Not every physician needs referral marketing, right?

Ms. Parker: Right. Every marketing component still has its place. Family physicians and OB-Gyns might want to focus on some of the more traditional marketing methods, such as print ads and community outreach, while just about every other specialty might want to focus more on relationship marketing. The one type of marketing that every practice needs is social media. That being said, if you can do every type of marketing, do it because you'll reach more prospective patients coming at it from every direction. 

Texas Medicine: Do physicians who are doing well even need to bother with marketing?

Ms. Parker: They need to bother with it a little bit. What they probably don't want to do is go out guns blazing and then find out [other physicians] are saying, "I'm trying to refer to you, but you've got a one-month waiting list. My patients can't wait that long." But you've got to keep that pipeline filled constantly. If you're as booked up as booked up can be, and there are a lot of physicians in that situation, great. But the majority aren't going to stay in that situation. 

Texas Medicine: Why can't physicians do this marketing themselves?

Ms. Parker: They can, but it's often a low priority. I think what happens quite a bit is that [the physician] tells the office manager, "You go do it." Well, of course, the office manager doesn't have time to do this. So then what they'll do is defer to the cutest, bubbliest person in the office. Well, they don't have time to do it, either. So that whole frequency variable gets blown out of the water. The second the phone rings, they get pulled into [another] project.

Texas Medicine: What are some of the surprising things you find when you're hired?

Ms. Parker: A lot of times, the reason for a decline [in referrals from another physician] ― a drastic decline that they can notice ― is because staff from one office and staff from another office start clashing. When we can go in and make peace, uncover the "Oh, gosh, I had no idea" problem. The physician is thinking, "It's me. It's me. What happened?" We'll go in and find out, no, it's because every time I fax something to your office, the office says we never got it, and I'm done. It's little things like that. (Editor's note: TMA Practice Consulting can identify business problems and make running your practice easier. Call (800) 523-8776 for a customized solution.)

Texas Medicine: What do you find the biggest challenge?

Ms. Parker: Physicians often wait until they are in dire straits, and so they have no pipeline [of referral patients], and that's a bad thing for a business. I don't think they are thinking in business terms when patients are coming in [steadily]. "Oh, I've got to keep that pipeline going in case something changes." The whole book is about how things are always changing, so you have to be ready for that. Marketing is not a luxury ― marketing is a necessity, whether you spend your money on print ads or on a physician liaison or social media. Hopefully, you'll do a little of everything, but you have to do something. 

Sean Price can be reached by phone at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1392, or (512) 370-1392; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by email.


Marketing Success

The following is an excerpt from Marketing Smart: A Guide for Medical Practices, Chapter Five: Formula for Marketing Success:

When developing your marketing plan, it is imperative that you apply the formula for marketing success.

The formula for marketing is very much like a recipe for chocolate chip cookies. Baking needs exact measurements. It has an established order. If you don't measure the flour just right, your cookies will turn out too flat or too fluffy. If you leave out the egg, you will end up with dry, crumbly cookies.

When you follow the recipe for marketing by saying the right thing to the right person the right number of times, you will be pleased with your results. 

The Formula  

  1. The right message: Your message needs to convey how your practice is unique. As a general guide, narrow down your message to the 4 C's that typically resonate with customers: customer value, convenience, communication style, and cost. 
  2. The right audience: Regardless of which type of marketing you do, make sure you know who your audience is and tailor your marketing message to be something that will resonate with them. 
  3. The right frequency: You're not going to make the impact you want to have, and keep the results you want to have, unless you have frequent contact with your audience. There is no substitute for persistence and consistence. You can't market only here a little, there a little, whenever you notice an opening. Marketing is an ongoing commitment.

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