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Most Physician Marketing Still in the Dark Ages

Posted May 18 2010 12:00am 1 Comment

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work in the area of physician marketing. Not only do I believe that most physician marketing is still in the dark ages, but that’s only when an institution is fortunate enough to actually be engaged in physician marketing at all. It is my perspective that most hospital and medical centers don’t actively market to the physician audience. That’s not to say that there aren’t institutions doing really good work in this area; some of the best practices that I’ve observed come from healthcare organizations such as MD Anderson, Mayo Clinic, University of Michigan Health System, UNC Health Care, St. Joseph Mercy Oakland, Rush University Medical Center and UW Health. MD Anderson, for example, has a great web portal for referring physicians, and is actively using Twitter and Facebook to communicate with this audience. They Mayo Clinic is using video and physician updates (with links to videos) in ways that we all ought to emulate (check out their Physician Update Video Blog online). Their web portal is also a well-designed tool for referring physicians.

Recently, while doing research for a physician marketing plan my firm was developing for a client, I posted discussions on 8 or 9 Linkedin Healthcare Marketing Groups asking for examples of innovative physician marketing strategies and tactics. In the past I’ve found that Linkedin is a great tool for sharing ideas with colleagues in the field. On this occasion, the few responses I received via the Linkedin discussions were far from earth shattering: use CMEs, host events where physicians can bring their families, etc. The members of these groups didn’t offer up many contemporary solutions. It is my belief that my experience is merely validation that most organizations aren’t creatively tackling physician marketing. Given that physician referrals still represent a large percentage of the patient volume for most hospitals, this should be shocking information!  But for some reason, it seems to be the status quo in healthcare marketing.

Here’s my perspective: Success in physician marketing comes from employing a systematic approach to ensure that outreach and engagement actually happen. If one waits to conduct physician outreach/engagement only “when they have time,” it will occur only sporadically or, in many cases, not at all. I recommend implementing a formalized, focused system and integrating it into the hospital’s overall operations.

Physician Marketing Starts with Physician-to-Physician Communication. There’s no reason to do physician marketing if you aren’t positioned to keep the business once you capture it. What do I mean by that? Well, if you have primary care doctors currently sending patients to your GI Center for colonoscopies, but your team at the center is doing poor follow-up with the referring physicians (either a long wait for a report, or no report at all without having to call for results), then you’ve got a serious challenge that needs to be addressed before you start asking for more referrals. You’ve got to have your house in order and establish solid processes for keeping referring physicians in the loop. This is fundamental to physician marketing! The referring physicians should know that your hospital or service line has a deep commitment to maintaining clear and timely communication about the progress of his or her patients.

Access is a must. If you’re asking for new patients but the referring physicians are hearing that their patients have to wait 6 to 8 weeks to get an appointment to see the specialist, then you’re creating challenges for your referrers. If a patient or physician has to call three different numbers to try to set up an appointment, that’s a problem as well. Primary care physicians don’t need additional headaches. All it takes is a couple of frustrating experiences and your organization will be branded as being difficult to work with. Once a referring physician has made up his or her mind, it becomes very difficult to create a new positive perception. My advice is to hold off marketing a given service line until it is ready for prime time. Make sure you have capacity and you can guarantee timely access to your services (there are exceptions to this rule). And make sure your scheduling processes are as simple as possible. One call should do it all. Then close the loop by doing great follow-up with the referring physician.

Physicians are people too. When marketing to physicians, I find that organizations often forget that physicians are consumers of media just like the rest of us. Sure, their media preferences might be different than yours and mine, but they are users of media nonetheless. When developing a physician marketing plan, it is worth considering media options that reach this particular population. In the past we’ve had success reaching physicians with high end financial publications and National Public Radio, among others.

Physicians are networking online. Physician marketing has not kept pace with changes in technology and their impact on marketing. With the pervasiveness of the Internet in our lives, marketing has changed significantly, as has the manner through which physicians access information. According to Manhattan Research, 99% of doctors are online daily, 85% maintain broadband in their offices and 83% consider the Internet essential to their practice. Manhattan Research also reports that physicians are active online consumers of video, blogs and podcasts. Currently 88% of all physicians use the Internet to access pharmaceutical, biotech or medical device information. Generally speaking, health care professionals who go online are looking for information. That points to an opportunity in physician marketing using online tactics. In short, if doctors are turning to the Web for information, your organization needs to be there as well.

Organizations like MD Anderson are turning to social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, to reach out to referring physicians. It makes sense given that physicians are embracing social media at a surprising rate. In a July 2009 study by Medimix International, 40% of the US physicians surveyed reported being members of Facebook, while 10% reported using Twitter. Here’s a quote from the New England Journal of Medicine addressing physicians’ adoption of social media:

“The burgeoning social media scene has clearly captured the attention of physicians. It began with blogs a decade ago but has grown exponentially in recent years with the advent of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. Doctors are not only blogging about their views on health care or political issues; they’re also creating Facebook pages and jumping into the fray of Twitter.”

“A Manhattan Research survey published in early 2009 reported that 60 percent of U.S. physicians are either actively using social media networks or are interested in doing so. In the ensuing year, during which health care reform and pressing public health issues such as H1N1 containment took center stage, physician participation in blogs and on the popular networking communities Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter has likely grown significantly.” NEJM, March 2010

Physician-Only Networking Sites: These sites are the new frontier for physician marketing. More than 100,000 physicians are currently members of Sermo, the most popular social network for physicians. MedScape also claims to have 100,000 physician members. Other social networks include iMEdExchange, Ozmosis, SocialMD and DoctorNetworking. It seems evident that physicians trust networks of peers, and that those peers are not always easy to connect to or locate when an answer is needed or a challenging patient case presents itself. So, what better tool than a secure, private social network for physicians to connect, collaborate, learn, discover and grow?

  • Ozmosis – Ozmosis enables physicians to establish trust by building a network of physicians they know and can rely on. One may search for and connect to past associates, former classmates, residency mates and friends. As the network of physicians grows on Ozmosis, the user experiences an increase in available sources for trusted information.
  • Sermo – Sermo is the largest MD-only online community in the US, where over 112,000 practicing MDs discuss drugs and devices, exchange clinical insights and collaborate on difficult cases. A hospital can rapidly target practicing U.S. physicians on-demand from a community over 110,000 strongspanning 68 specialties and all 50 states. Through Sermo’s social media platform, you can tap into unsolicited, peer-to-peer dialog and engage MDs to gain market intelligence and increase brand awareness. Use postings on Sermo to share clinical insights and start peer-to-peer discussions.

Physician-to-physician blogs. Along with their ability to reach referring physicians, one of the advantages of physician blogs is their global reach. The blog provides a global platform for the hospital and its services. Additionally, blogs present the opportunity for the organization to tell its story without the filters of the news media or even the industry press.

Be Prepared with Physician Relevant Web Content. I’m amazed by the number of hospitals who don’t have web content for referring medical professionals. At a minimum you should have a page on your website that gives referral information: How to refer a patient, a name and contact number, etc. Make it easy for the referrer by giving him or her the information they’ll need. Your long-term vision for physician marketing should include a plan for a comprehensive physician communication program that includes a leading edge physician portal with tools for routinely evaluating referring physician satisfaction and more. Your organization needs to act and communicate as if it anticipates physicians making referrals, with all the necessary tools in place. These tools might include online feedback forms for referring physicians and a statement of your hospital’s philosophy for partnering with referring physicians (sharing information, returning patients, etc.).  You should also consider giving referring physicians the ability to view patient appointments and reports online, and send secure messages to your physicians. These are elements that offer value to the referring physician. They save him and help him keep track of his patient. The physician marketing program needs to be designed to offer this type of value to referring physicians.

Don’t Forget Media Relations. I already stated that physicians are people too. They form impressions based on what they observe in the media and through word-of-mouth communication. One way to secure greater referral business is to build the stature of your organization (or specific service) in the mind of the referring physician. That means it is important to promote your services and your physicians using media relations tactics. Using earned media and online PR tactics, you can share the story of your physicians and star services with the local referral base. Let them know why your service is unique or advanced through stories pitched to the local and industry press.  Use press releases to announce your physicians’ professional activities (speaking at conferences, publishing, conducting new research) and then disseminate that information through news media outlets, your website, referring physician newsletter and through online news distribution outlets like PRLog. Media relations gives you another set of tools to positively position your services and raise their stature with potential referring physicians. When they come across news about your hospital in the media, it will have more weight and credibility than any brochure your could produce.

Conclusion: Make Physician Marketing a Core Competency. There’s obviously a lot more to physician marketing than I’ve been able to introduce in this short summary: physician office visits, networking events, CMEs, direct marketing, etc. However, a successful physician marketing program begins with a commitment to make it a priority. Within the organization, physician marketing needs to become a core competency and an important part of the culture. Consumer advertising is not and cannot be the only answer to growing patient volume and improving payer mix.

Post by Dan Dunlop, The Healthcare Marketer

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