Health News Digest

November 5, 2012

Physician, Heal Thyself…With Marketing

Docs marketing themselves

By  Michael D. Shaw

Back in the day, most newly-minted physicians could simply “hang up a shingle,” as they would say, and pretty much be assured of an above average income. Whatever marketing that did exist was limited to word-of-mouth referrals, and glad-handing at the local chamber of commerce or service club. However, during the past 50 years, many factors came into play that would forever change this cozy situation.

Before Medicare arrived in 1965, a sort of gentle cartel existed among doctors. The number of medical students was limited, but for those who were willing to suffer through med school and grueling residencies, the future was bright. Health insurance was strictly for hospital stays, and provided for catastrophic coverage at best. It was a fee-for-service world, and the fees were reasonable. Best of all, no third party would interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.

Medicare brought with it a dizzying array of new acronyms. DRGs, CPT and HPCS codes, and a variety of reimbursement panels were established. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in its various iterations—which had been around since the late 19th century—would achieve far greater importance. All this was because a third party was now going to pick up the tab.

By the early 1970s, in light of economic changes wrought by the first oil crisis and the growth of government, as well as the seizing of new opportunities by the private insurance industry, the Medicare template would be imposed on all of health care, and not just that portion devoted to senior citizens. As a result, so-called Provider Groups were created, and the medical profession cannibalized itself, bringing us to the current situation, whereby a doctor is little more than an employee of Medicare, Medicaid, and the private insurance industry—unless he is already working for a hospital.

Under these rubrics, health care has become a commodity, being judged primarily on the size of the co-payment: The smaller, the better. As such, the entire institution of private medical practice is under siege, and some authorities believe that it will not exist ten years from now. If physicians are to stem this tide, they must now market themselves, as repugnant as that idea might seem to those many beleaguered purists. Fortunately, the Internet has provided several cost-effective and patient-friendly methods to accomplish this.

Marie Ennis-O’Connor is a PR consultant with a strong interest in health care social media. A few months ago, she posted an excellent article entitled “Using Social Media to Market and Brand Your Medical Practice.”

She challenges physicians to ask themselves these questions, to help define their brand, or as it could also be called, their Unique Selling Proposition…

  • What can patients find with you that they won’t find with another doctor?
  • What are your strengths when it comes to patient care?
  • What aspect of medicine do you most enjoy?
  • Do you have knowledge of a hobby or special interest which patients would benefit from your expertise on?

Her piece concludes with a warning: “Finally, don’t think because you don’t appear online doesn’t mean you aren’t being talked about. With the advent of patient review sites, and online discussion forums, you risk leaving your brand reputation in the hands of others. The conversation is happening online with or without you, so for the sake of your health care brand, join it!”

To get a handle on overall practice marketing—from pay-per-click management and search engine optimization, to conversion rate optimization—I spoke with Paul Rakovich, founder and CEO of Clicks and Clients. The company’s slogan is “Measured results from your marketing dollars.”

In addition to health care, Paul has worked with clients in such diverse fields as real estate, law, and personal fitness. A true marketeer, Paul understands that while no two campaigns are ever the same, all successful ones have similar basic components. And, as Paul cautions his clients, each of these parts “has to uphold its end of the deal.” He continues…

It starts with the ad running in a search engine. You’ve got to test different headlines. Are people concerned with free consultation, are they concerned with price, are they interested in whether or not the doctor is top-rated? These ads must be tested, to determine which copy works the best.

The ad gets people to click onto the website. That is its sole job. Now, it’s the website’s job to convert these visitors into actual leads. Again, all elements must be tested, from the copy and layout, to the pictures, and the call to action. Finally, the front office staff must convert these leads—which are now phoning into the office—to appointments. We also get involved with monitoring this process, testing keywords used in this interaction. There is always room for improvement.

Sometimes, the process is not an immediate direct response, in which one click is followed by one visit to the website, and an appointment. The potential patient may click on an ad, visit the doctor’s website, then go to the doctor’s Facebook page, check out the organic search results, and research things more fully before finally picking up the phone. Even so, all the parts still had to work.

Another exciting service, ZocDoc, was recently profiled in Inc. magazine. The site allows prospective patients to research physicians by various parameters, including insurance accepted, and lets them book appointments online. As the Inc. piece explained, even physicians with busy practices and long wait lists lose 12 percent of their available appointment times because of patients who don’t show up or cancel at the last minute.

I’ve tried ZocDoc, and on a Friday, obtained an appointment with a local physician for the following Monday morning. In addition, certain new patient formalities were also handled via the site, further increasing office efficiency.

As I have noted in previous articles, Obamacare, and the bloated programs that precede it, have done basically zilch for physicians. Fortunately, the docs now have resources available—if they would only take advantage of them.