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Administrators and managing physicians often view marketing solely as advertising to attract new patients. Marketing is stereotyped as newspaper ads, billboards and direct mail campaigns, with LASIK surgery advertising currently being the most obvious.
Marketing is in fact, however, any activity that moves your practice in a desired direction. Directions might include increasing income, deterring new competitors, retaining market share, shifting payer patterns, introducing new services, recruiting new providers, entering new marketplaces or combating negative publicity.
There are many activities that might be considered "good practice" or "good management" that fit under the broad definition of marketing. These included strategic planning, patient relations, insurance plan contracting, recall systems, practice hours, practice acquisition, office location and ancillary products and services.
A comprehensive guide on marketing ophthalmology would fill a book, but here are a few refresher pointers on the basics as it applies today.
Tip #1 - Have a Written One-Year and Five-Year Marketing Plan
Practices with a plan typically out-perform practices without a plan. The first and most important part of a marketing plan is the goal, as it is a foundation for all the other decisions. First, develop your five-year goal(s), since your one-year goal(s) should fit within the context of your five-year plan. A five-year goal is more broad in scope and strategic.
After each year, you should evaluate and amend next year’s goal(s) based upon whether or not you achieved this year’s goal(s). Concentrate on developing strong, well-crafted goals. In order to accomplish this, limit your goals to no more than five. The components of a properly crafted goal are that the goal is:
- Challenging yet attainable
- Clear and specific
- Written and measurable
Different practices have different business plans and as-such should have different marketing goals. A new practice in an urban area will obviously have different goals than a mature practice in a rural setting. A general ophthalmologist with a dispensary will have different goals than a referral-dependent vitreoretinal specialist.
An example of a good goal for a new practice therefore might be: "Achieve a consistent monthly surgical caseload of 10 cataract surgeries and 10 LASIK surgeries within one year and a combined consistent monthly caseload of 30 procedures within five years."
The rest of the steps in the marketing plan are factors that may impact the outcome of your goal:
- Define your target (age, gender, race, location, diagnosis, language, insurance coverage, etc.)
- Define target desires (availability, affability, ability, etc.)
- Self-assessment (availability, affability, ability, location, capacity, experience, reputation, etc.)
- Competition-assessment (as above)
- Market-assessment (demand, payers, economy, demographics, geographic-shift, changes, etc.)
- Budget (3 percent to 8 percent typical, 10 percent or more to enter a market or for elective services)
- Decide strategies (internal/external, conservative/assertive, hundreds of choices)
- Create a calendar of implementation (production lead-time, seasonality, pacing, etc.)
- Execute (engage support services, involve staff, implement the plan)
- Review and adjustment (track and review results monthly, adjust plan as needed, experiment)
Tip #2 - Tune-Up Your Recall System
I have seen practices where many second-cataract or second-LASIK surgeries fell through the cracks due to scheduling problems and weak recall-systems. Audit 100 charts (at the rate of 20 per day) for clinical recall compliance. If many charts are out of compliance, audit the last three to five years' charts over the next six months. Call and attempt to schedule all patients that are out of compliance.
Tip #3 - Decide Whether to Employ or Market-to Optometrists and Opticians
This goes back to strategic planning as a marketing activity. In considering this issue, go back through all the steps of the marketing plan. Optometrists and opticians prefer to refer patients to ophthalmologists who do not employ optometrists and who do not provide an on-site dispensary. Yet, ophthalmologists typically net around $50,000 profit per year for each employed optometrist. Your particular situation will determine which approach is right for you.
Tip #4 - Demonstrate Availability, Affability and Ability
That old cliché about what makes a successful practice still holds true today, perhaps even more-so in our "go-go" society. Your patients are busy and require convenience. Scheduling is still the most important function in your office after the initial physician-patient contact, for patient-retention and new referrals.
- See new patients and referrals as soon as possible, preferably within the same week of the call.
- See patients on time.
We all prefer to interact with people we like so make sure everyone who interacts with your patients is friendly and pleasant.
- Address the patient by name.
- Make an effort to engage the patient in light conversation.
- Ask patients about their kids, work/school or the weather.
Patients often perceive higher ability in physicians who have affiliations with academic centers or who publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. If your physicians participate in either of these, post it to the practice Web site, practice brochure and in patient communication materials.
Tip #5 - Get Out in Public Again
One of the first, basic and most successful marketing techniques oftentimes ignored by maturing practices. Have your practice’s ophthalmologist(s) meet and network with others. It is psychologically easier for them to just keep seeing referrers they already know and depend on, rather than meeting strangers and facing rejection. Try to have them meet three potential referrers per week, especially non-physicians and non-optometrists (presuming you already know all of them on a first-name basis and see them regularly). Opticians, pharmacists, nurses, primary care physicians, medical assistants, hospital physician-referral-line staff, flight-school trainers, chiropractors, physical therapistss, massage therapists, health-food-store owners, hair-dressers, herbologists, acupuncturists and podiatrists all know people whom need an ophthalmologist. People refer first to people they know and like (affability again). Just remember, compensating others for referrals is usually illegal.
Tip #6 - Keep Your Name in Front of Patients and Referrals
It is estimated that it takes five or more encounters with your practice’s name for it to be recognized. Your name should appear anywhere potential patients would look. That means at least the minimal listing information in all the appropriate categories of various publications, including the local phone book, ophthalmic directories, physician-listing services and perhaps the local paper. Free-standing office signs are one of the most effective marketing investments, if the location allows it. Twice-yearly mailings to patients and local residents can also be effective.
Your practice’s name, address, phone number and Web address should also appear on every single piece of paper that leaves your office. This includes all those patient-education pamphlets, which would otherwise be generic pieces of information doing nothing to promote your office in the case where a patient passes them on to friends.
Every patient should leave your office with a piece of literature at every visit. Quality pamphlets, like those offered by the Academy, better reflect a quality image than most freebies available from vendors. Consider using name-stickers with black ink on a clear background, rather than ink-stamps that may smear. Put the name-stickers on the front of the pamphlet to increase your exposure, as most pamphlets are laid down face-up.
Tip #7 - Have an Appropriate Web Page
Here again is a marketing strategy that depends on your goals and plan. Most general ophthalmologists serve a local community and would waste marketing dollars trying to build a Web page that directly attracts new patients searching the Web for a local ophthalmologist. You don't need patients outside of your community to view your Web page.
A better strategy is to build a Web site that reflects the office brochure and patient-education materials, so that it serves as a destination-point for local patients in the process of making a choice among physicians. Make sure these potential-patients find your Web address on all your print, ad and media materials. It is a good idea to provide patients with a method to communicate with your office, but make sure you are using a secure messaging service, not regular e-mail, so that your office continues to meet HIPAA compliance regulations.
Subspecialty practices that serve broader regions may consider Web sites set up to draw patients directly to your practice, increase your visibility among ophthalmologists researching information or to stimulate referral requests.
In either case, a "bells-and-whistles" Web site is not necessary, just a clean, fast-loading, attractive image with quality-content. Nothing turns-off a Medicare patient using a 26K modem more than a slow-loading, plug-in-dependant Web page that crashes their browser three times in a row! Make sure your Web page is W3C-validated (http://validator.w3.org) and promoted properly to search engines and directories (referred to as "web-optimized"). Check with the Academy for a module on this topic.
Tip #8 - Maintain a Commitment to Quality
Focus on providing extraordinary service to patients to increase patient retention and patient referrals. By doing so, you should reduce the need for further marketing cash-expenditures.
Think about examples of extraordinary service you have experienced at other businesses and how those behaviors might be applied to your office. Particularly pay attention to how problems and disputes were resolved to your satisfaction. Examples might include resolving billing disputes or handling appointment tardiness that was not the patient's fault.
Tip #9 - Change Your Sign
If you have a free-standing sign in front of your practice, after a while it becomes invisible to passers-by who see it regularly. Changing the size, shape and/or color will attract more attention. You may get new walk-in patients asking, "I just saw your sign, how long have you been here?"
If you are in a medical office building with shared signage, external signage is probably prohibited. In that case, your lease might not prohibit a neon sign lit at night on an interior wall of an office, but visible from the street or parking lot through an outside window. Consider a huge clock with the words around the edge, "Time to have your eyes checked?" that becomes a local landmark people glance at regularly as they pass.
Tip #10 - Drop Your Worst Insurance Plans
If your physicians are booked more than two weeks in advance more than 75 percent of the time — and you don't want to expand — consider shrinking your patient panel by dropping poor-paying insurance reimbursement contracts. By limiting your practice to better-paying contracts, your doctors don't need to see as many patients for the same income and they can spend more time per patient while reducing waiting times. Drop one plan at a time until a desirable balance of patient-load, wait-time and income is achieved.
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About the author: Keith Borglum is a medical practice-marketing consultant with Professional Management and Marketing in Santa Rosa, Calif. He is a member of the AAOE Consultant Directory, the AMA ConsultantLink, director of the National Association of Health Care Consultants and an editor of Healthcare Marketing for the Open Directory Project (providing content-selection for Google, AOL-Search and Yahoo-Search). He consults nationally to physicians on practice management, marketing, practice valuation and sales and group formation issues.