Attract new patients by writing a newspaper column

March 21, 2008

The author built up her practice and became a local celebrity by writing a newspaper column.

Key Points

Patients frequently laugh at my advice and I'm delighted.

Two years ago, I began writing a humorous medical column for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Daily News of Washington, NC. My intention was to educate through entertainment, but after a few months, I discovered that the column was an amazing marketing tool-a tool more physicians should consider.

Despite the fact that our four-provider practice regularly advertises itself on TV, many new patients say that they select me as their physician because they like what they read in the column. Although I practice in a small town, my full schedule usually includes two to four new patients each day that I'm in the office. These folks feel as if they already know me, and my established patients love reading about their doctor's unexpected take on all things medical. Besides, now when I run into patients in the supermarket, they tend to ask about my latest column rather than their latest symptoms.

Before writing your first column, jot down ideas based on you own experiences. The more topics that come to mind at this stage, the more apt you are to sustain an ongoing feature and there will be months when you thank yourself for thinking ahead. My own list of 50 ideas still cures the occasional case of writer's block.

My first column was inspired by a diabetic patient who gleefully informed me that she had converted from whole to skim milk with her daily breakfast of Honey Smacks. Another column, headlined "The mysterious case of Mrs. Candler's hurricane force hair," described an emergency visit by a quintessential little old lady who was stricken with an acute allergic reaction while at the beauty salon. While I discovered the amazing chemistry that results when Lysol is mistaken for hairspray, readers learned how to recognize and respond to an anaphylactic reaction.

Readers, however, should never recognize themselves in your words. While your columns may be based on actual events, you should change the names to honor HIPAA regulations and to protect yourself from litigation. In my area of rural, eastern North Carolina, readers include soybean farmers, community college students and professors, crab pickers, real estate moguls, nurses, Gen Xers, and baby boomers. My fictitious characters, like many of my real-life patients, cater to sugar-glazed doughnuts, hush puppies, and pork. They understand life among fire ants. They breathe basketball and NASCAR. Your column, too, must reflect and respect your readers.

Once you're ready, it's time to select a newspaper and contact the editor with a query letter. Start with your hometown newspaper, which may be thrilled to have a local physician contributing to its pages. If the paper is in an urban area where it's tough to get your foot in the door, try a smaller newspaper published in a suburban town from which your practice draws patients.

Write a dynamite query letter

The query letter sells your column proposal. Generally one page in length, it serves as an example of your writing skills, covers the specifics of the column, and must grab the editor's attention at the opening line. In my query letter, I included a sample piece and suggested "One Doctor Surveyed" as a working name for the monthly feature. A week later, my column debuted and now patients refer to me as "that funny doctor."

But don't make light of everything; surprise your readers occasionally. Submit a personal essay or a story that has readers grabbing a tissue. Remember to poke fun at yourself.

Editors crave features that increase circulation just as physicians desire a steady influx of new patients. In what is in essence a half-page ad for the practice, the newspaper includes my photo and a descriptive byline that has proven more beneficial than advertising in the Yellow Pages or on TV.

If you enjoy writing, a medical column-especially one that injects some humor-is a great way to channel your talents and connect with patients. But before dialing up the Daily Planet, make sure you're ready for a long-term commitment (and, quite possibly, little or no pay).

Master the craft. Query an editor. Then keep writing. New patients are waiting.