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Marketing: Lead patients to your door


Attracting new patients and retaining established ones takes planning and imagination. At least one of the ideas detailed here could be right for you.


Lead patients to your door

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Choose article section...The benefits of going where you're needed Marketing to established patients Giving patients something to remember you by Using the media to deliver your message Just because it's unusual doesn't make it a good idea

Attracting new patients and retaining established ones takes planning and imagination. At least one of the ideas detailed here could be right for you.

By Gail Garfinkel Weiss
Senior Editor

Several years ago, Denver internist Judy Paley wrote a letter to "Dear Abby." She was responding to advice the columnist had given to a woman who said she couldn't make or keep friends because she was a crashingly dull conversationalist.

"Abby recommended that Miss Boring take classes to develop some interests so she'd have something to say," Paley remembers. "I suggested to Abby that Ms. B. might be depressed, and once she was successfully treated, she'd be more outgoing and fun to be with. I used my own name and city. After the letter ran, I got calls from 'conversationally challenged' patients all over the US and wound up seeing a number of them. That experience proved to me that every time you get your name in the newspaper, patients will flock to your door."

It also represents thinking outside the box in the tricky milieu of practice building. Self-promotion is something that many physicians find distasteful, but you're probably already doing some basic marketing—sponsoring a Little League team, say, or building a referral network by taking colleagues to dinner. So why not go a step further and look for other ways to help patients find you?

You may not want to go as far as Ira M. Rutkow and Alan W. Robbins, general surgeons in Freehold, NJ. They started The Hernia Center in 1984 with a saturation promotional campaign that included billboards, television ads, and an easy-to-recall phone number, 1-800-HERNIAS. But even little touches can go a long way toward attracting patients. At internist Eugene Ogrod's large group practice in Sacramento, the doctors appear at health fairs, one of the internists gives medical advice on a local TV station, and an orthopedist counsels cycling teams.

Even that old standby, Yellow Pages advertising, has lesser-known options you can use to your advantage. Judy Paley bought an ad in the Gay & Lesbian Yellow Pages. That ad, she says, "identified us as accessible and nonjudgmental to a community that's very careful in picking health care providers."

You might prefer the Web-based Yellow Pages to promote your practice. Or maybe you'd like to try one of the methods described below.

The benefits of going where you're needed

Sometimes a practice-expanding opportunity sneaks up on you. Recognizing it and capitalizing on it, says Santa Rosa, CA, practice management consultant Keith Borglum, "is more of an art than a science." As a case in point, Borglum tells of a doctor who ran a neuromuscular electrical stimulation program for people with sore backs. "He asked me to do some marketing," says Borglum, "and I noticed that two-thirds of the people coming in for back therapy were obese. So I suggested he launch a medically supervised fasting program as an adjunct therapy.

"Because potential patients for such a program were already familiar with the practice, he was able to develop the biggest medically supervised fasting program in northern California."

Borglum also counseled a cosmetic surgeon who found patients by sponsoring a tattoo festival. "He was sympathetic to the concept of tattoos as a cultural phenomenon and a means of self-expression," says Borglum. "But he also knew that some people get tattoos impulsively, or discover that job interviewers aren't necessarily impressed by skin art. So at the festival he manned a booth for tattoo removal—both surgical and laser."

Another Borglum client offered free tattoo removal to youths who completed a rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders. "We put out a press release on it and that got him a lot of very good attention in the community," Borglum recalls.

Newington, CT, internist Jeffrey Kagan, on the other hand, builds his practice the old-fashioned way. "I make house calls on bedridden patients for routine nonurgent care," he says. "They tell their friends; every new house-call patient has led to at least two or more office patients."

Marketing to established patients

As Kagan found out, your existing patients can be your biggest cheerleaders. Marketing to them not only keeps them in the fold; it increases the likelihood that they'll send their friends, relatives, and associates to you.

A primary care group in North Carolina hung photos and short biographies of each physician in the waiting room. "It's a great way for patients to better identify with and understand the physicians," says Will Latham, a management consultant in Charlotte, NC. He also recommends taking a page from an ob/gyn group that put together an extensive lending library for patients. "They have books on pregnancy, childbirth, gynecological health, menopause, and other topics, and they promote the library in their marketing literature."

A New England physician hung a handsome wooden plaque in his waiting room. It says, "Eighty-seven percent of our new patients are referred by our existing patients, and we really appreciate that." "He had no statistical data to verify the number, but it sounded plausible, and the plaque was a powerful advertising tool," says Kenneth Bowden, a management consultant in Pittsfield, MA.

Bowden gives new clients a list of 330 practice-building ideas—many of which focus on keeping existing patients happy. No. 1: Offer coffee, tea, or juice in the reception area. Another proposal: Write a personalized welcome letter to each new patient.

Gregory Hood, an internist who recently moved from La Mesa, CA, to Lexington, KY, hasn't seen Bowden's list, but he knows the value of sending letters to patients. He's formatted his electronic medical record to produce a two-page letter whenever he sees a new patient or does an annual physical. The letter reviews the exam and what was discussed, and contains vitamin, exercise, and other health recommendations. "Taking that extra step has brought me many new patients," he says. "I'm building a clientele that likes the way I practice and values what I do."

Another patient-pleaser is making—and referencing—notes in the chart about the patient's family. "If, for example, my nurse gets a refill request from a patient, she can say, 'I'll ask Dr. Hood if that's okay. And by the way, how's your daughter doing at Stanford?' Patients are impressed that we're interested in more than how they're tolerating their beta-blocker."

Giving patients something to remember you by

For years, Altoona, PA, neurosurgeon Michael-Gerard Moncman has talked to community groups. "I figure that when Chevy or Ford is coming out with a new car, they make commercials for the people who are going to buy the car, not the dealers. So that's what I do. I go to patients."

And he hands them his business card.

You might prefer to give potential patients a practice brochure or patient education literature; almost anything goes, as long as it features your name and phone number on the front. For each hour of public speaking, Moncman figures he's garnered three or four patients.

Internist Todd Coulter took to the streets when he started his solo practice in Ocean Springs, MS, in December 1999. He went door-to-door, visiting local businesses, churches, day care centers, and homeowners, handing out brochures and engaging people in conversation. "Our practice grew—and continues to grow—by seven or eight patients per day," he says.

Consultant Will Latham knows of a doctor who attracted patients by handing out magnets listing phone numbers for the police, fire department, and his practice. "The implicit message," Latham says, "is, 'We're concerned about you.' "

One person's promotional watershed, however, is another's washout. Los Angeles family practitioner Steven Kamajian also had magnets made up. "I ordered hundreds," he notes. "Each had my name and number, and the note 'Call in case of emergency.' Few did, but one night a man called from a pay phone at 2 am. In broken English, he asked me to come to his house—but not to provide medical care. He assumed I was a telephone repairman."

Using the media to deliver your message

"Our practice has never advertised in the formal sense," says interventional radiologist Richard Duszak of Reading, PA, "but we've been quite successful in encouraging our local newspaper to write articles in its lifestyle section addressing new medical technologies, such as peripheral angioplasty and stenting, which we've introduced in the community. These generated much interest and cost nothing except some physician initiative and time."

Michael Moncman gained name recognition and countless patients as the host of a radio talk show. "I would do the show solo, or I'd get one of my colleagues to come on, and I'd say, 'Today we're going to talk about colon cancer, and I've got my friend the gastroenterologist here.' Then we'd take calls. I had a colleague from virtually every medical specialty on at one time or another. I even brought in medical assistants, nurses, and physician assistants."

Such promotional tactics are effective, says Betsy Nicoletti, a practice management consultant in Springfield, VT, because they indicate that you're not just interested in filling up your schedule; you're interested in providing some kind of education.

When Denver internist Judy Paley first went into practice, she tried several tactics before harnessing the power of the press: "We blanketed the neighborhood with flyers for low cost flu shots (no one came), announced our practice's opening with flyers posted in employee washrooms and coffee rooms (zero hits), took blood pressures at health clubs (nary a patient).

"What finally worked was an article in the lifestyle section of the Rocky Mountain News. I wrote a letter to the editor of that section telling her how unique we were—there were very few women primary care doctors then, and none focusing on PMS and depression. The editor wrote a lovely piece complete with picture. Our phone never stopped ringing after that."


Just because it's unusual doesn't make it a good idea

Novelty is one thing, but you don't want to step over the line that separates a professional business from the mundane. So think twice before including an ad for your practice in a coupon pack, amid notices for discount pizza, dry cleaning, and lawn services. "That can be detrimental to your image," says Santa Rosa, CA, management consultant Keith Borglum—who also cringes when he sees doctors' faces on supermarket shopping carts.

Consultant Betsy Nicoletti, in Springfield, VT, recalls another example of inappropriate advertising: A primary care physician was trying to lure patients away from a walk-in clinic in Vermont's ski area. "He ran a series of ads," says Nicoletti. "The first one featured a picture of his mother and the caption, 'Hi, I'm Dr. Smith's mother. Go to him because he's a great guy.' Then he ran pictures of his father, his father-in-law—even his dog—all with the plea, 'Go to Dr. Smith because he's a great guy.'

"If you want to be noticed, that certainly does it, but you have to be careful about the message. This one just says, 'I'm desperate.' " A far better approach for this doctor, Nicoletti says, would be a campaign that stresses the advantages of a personal physician over a walk-in clinic—something like, "I'm your family doctor, not someone who's rotating through. When you need ongoing care for a chronic illness or someone who knows your history, I'm your man."


Gail Weiss. Marketing: Lead patients to your door. Medical Economics 2002;14:55.

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