American Academy of Ophthalmology Web Site: www.aao.org
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April 2004

 
Practice Perfect

Eight Marketing Techniques to Build Patient Volume

By Chris McDonagh, Associate Editor
 
 

When patients have a choice of providers, how do they choose which practice to visit? By promoting your strengths effectively and ethically, you can ensure that you’re on their short list. And if you can use those strengths to differentiate yourself from your peers, you will be top of the list, said L. Renee Hatfield, a former auditor and investigator who is now senior consultant at Health Care Economics, an Indianapolis-based consultancy.

Take Stock of Your Strengths
Consider what qualities your prospective patients might have on their wish list.

Cost. If you want to stay off the Federal Trade Commission’s radar screen, you should be very careful when promoting your practice on the basis of cost. “We have received a lot of complaints about advertisements that purportedly offer very low cost LASIK. The FTC has determined a number of them to be bait-and-switch promotions,” said Mara Pearse Burke, manager of the Academy’s ethics program.

Convenience. Emphasize any attributes that make your practice easily accessible, such as ample parking, proximity to public transit and extended hours of service.

Clinical expertise. If you have an exceptional amount of experience in the field, have had additional training or are using the latest technology, those factors may help to differentiate your practice, said Ms. Hatfield. “Market your leadership in the field—but try and put it in layman’s terms.”

Courtesy. Friendly service starts with physicians and administrators. You have to practice it daily for your staff to follow suit, and you need to make sure that they are following your example, said Ms. Hatfield. When staff relate to patients with warmth and understanding, “people will remember that and they’ll come back.”

Community presence. If you have been practicing in town for a long time, that longevity implies both patient satisfaction and loyalty to the community. “Even in a big city people love that, and in a small town it means everything,” said Ms. Hatfield.

Eight Marketing Techniques
“Some marketing strategies are free and some aren’t. My suggestion would be to utilize as many of these as you can,” said Ms. Hatfield.

1. Send out press releases and enjoy free publicity in print, on the air and online. “Send these out whenever you get new certification, buy new equipment, change opening hours or sponsor a screening. The more you get your name out, the better,” said Ms. Hatfield.

To make sure your press release gets the attention it deserves, your headline and opening sentence should summarize its content in an attention-grabbing way. The release itself should focus on news that is interesting, timely and useful for the intended audience, while avoiding hype and exaggeration. Finally, include as much contact information as possible.

For free customizable press releases, visit www.aao.org/eyemd and click “Monthly Observances.”

2. Speak at health fairs to help define ophthalmology, explain what you do and get people familiar with your practice. “Attending health fairs does take time away from your office, but the audience wants to be there and you can personally interact with people,” said Ms. Hatfield.

3. Send out mailers to a targeted audience. When you buy your mailing list, you can request addresses of households that meet certain demographic criteria. Your parameters might include zip code, income, occupation, age, length of residence and number of children.

4. Give out Rolodex cards, but keep them simple—if you go into too many specifics, you’ll have to send out new cards every time there’s a change in your practice, said Ms. Hatfield. “People do keep Rolodex cards. They can be an extremely effective way of marketing your practice, especially if you make the top of the card very colorful so people can easily find your card when they’re flicking through their Rolodex.”

5. Write an article for your local newspaper, and readers will view you as the community’s expert. But do not assume that staff will edit your clinical advice with the same understanding and reverence as they do the baseball reports. “Any inaccuracies can jeopardize both the author’s reputation and the readers’ perspective, so doctors should insist on having the final say in proofing articles before they go to print,” said Ms. Pearse Burke.

6. Put your practice online and patients can access information at their own convenience. “People are always searching online, and that makes Web sites a wonderful asset,” said Ms. Hatfield. Linking your site to health plan directories and physician finders will enhance your practice’s visibility; save yourself and your patients time by including clinical information and downloadable forms.

You can build a practice Web site for free by joining Medem, a network that the Academy and six other medical societies established in 1999. Go to www.medem.com and choose “Join the Network.” In addition to providing practice Web sites, Medem offers an extensive library of patient education materials, a Secure Messaging service for appointment requests and prescription renewals and an Online Consultation service that enables you to charge for communicating online. (Most physicians who use the Online Consultation service charge patients from $20 to $30 per consult.)

7. Thank patients for referrals by sending them a thank-you note. Each word-of-mouth recommendation is a powerful endorsement of your practice.

8. Buy advertisements in your local media. You must observe legal constraints (which may vary by state) and ethical guidelines that were developed by the Academy and the federal government (see below), but you have much more latitude in advertising your practice today than you did 30 years ago. Back then, an advertisement that went beyond your name, telephone number and address was considered unethical.

But in 1975, the FTC began an antitrust suit against the AMA for its Code of Ethics restrictions on advertising. The FTC—which argued that the restrictions discouraged competition and unfairly disadvantaged consumers—prevailed in 1982.

To read the FTC’s statements about deceptive advertising, promotion of eye care surgery, testimonials and more, visit www.ftc.gov, click “For Business” and select “Advertising Guidance.”

Communicate Ethically
Before you send out a press release, speak at a health fair or outline your medical expertise on your Web site, you should familiarize yourself with Rule 13 of the Academy’s Code of Ethics, which covers communications to the public:

  • Communications must be accurate. They must not convey false, untrue, deceptive or misleading information through statements, testimonials, photographs, graphics or other means. They must not omit material information without which the communications would be deceptive.
  • Communications must not appeal to an individual’s anxiety in an excessive or unfair way.
  • Communications must not create unjustified expectations of results.
  • If communications refer to benefits or other attributes of ophthalmic procedures that involve significant risks, realistic assessments of their safety and efficacy must be included, as well as availability of alternatives and, where necessary to avoid deception, descriptions and/or assessments of the benefits or other attributes of those alternatives.
  • Communications must not misrepresent an ophthalmologist’s credentials, training, experience or ability, and must not contain material claims of superiority that cannot be substantiated.
  • If a communication results from payment by an ophthalmologist, this must be disclosed unless the nature, format or medium makes it apparent.

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To read the Academy’s Code of Ethics in full, go to
www.aao.org/member and click “Ethics.”

 

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Ethics CME

Each of the Academy’s three online ethics courses—Commercial Relationships, Compensation and Advertising; Informed Consent, Doctor-Patient Relationship and Delegated Services; and Research, New Technology and Collegiality—offer one hour of ethics-specific CME.

There is a charge of $15 for each course. For more information, visit www.aao.org/ethicscourses.