Use marketing to draw in more patients

March 7, 2008

Newspaper ads? The Internet? Public speaking? Here's how to choose the most effective business-builders-and avoid those that don't work.

Key Points

Peter E. Bentivegna, a plastic surgeon in Cape Cod, MA, gave lectures on common hand conditions at local community centers, and netted five to 10 new patients per session. Katrina Hood and one of her partners built up their Lexington, KY, pediatric practice by giving free talks to parents about illness in day care and speaking to future parents at prenatal clinics. Jeffrey A. Elting credits radio advertising with doubling the size of his family practice in Washington, DC. John C. Johnson, an emergency medicine specialist in Valparaiso, IN, swears by good road signage. "People may not need you for years," he says, "but they remember driving by every day, and head in your direction when they do need you."

For many practices, marketing is a survival tool. But with so many ways to approach it-public speaking, print media, radio ads, the Web-it's a tool that doctors often use haphazardly, or not at all. "One of the biggest mistakes physicians make is that they don't develop a marketing plan," says Keith Borglum, of Professional Management and Marketing in Santa Rosa, CA. "In medical terms, it's like doing treatment without a diagnosis."

In marketing, as in medicine, you're much more likely to achieve your goals if you take the time to determine what they are. Begin by setting quantifiable parameters. How many additional patients do you want to attract? Can your practice's staff and internal systems handle that number of new patients? How much time and money can you invest in marketing? Are you seeking a particular type of patient? If you're hoping to attract 20-and 30-somethings, say, you'll probably need to develop a website and fashion an ad campaign aimed at luring that cohort to the site.

Target specific patient populations

Like successful theatrical presentations, effective advertising entails good timing and knowing your audience, in addition to having a good product. To attract athletes to his practice, John Pagliano, a podiatrist in Long Beach, CA, sponsors 5-and 10-kilometer races, so that his practice is advertised via each event's T-shirts and programs. He also holds running clinics after the races, in which participants discuss their running-related problems. The local press has taken notice: In August 2007, the Daily Breeze ran an article about Pagliano in which he was referred to as "Doctor Distance."

Sumana Reddy, on the other hand, wanted to attract a diverse range of patients to her family practice in Salinas, CA. So she and her partners hired a professional to design ads promoting various themes, including preventive care, extended hours, and women's health. "Recently, we gave up obstetrics and were concerned that we'd see fewer children," she says. "Since this is a major joy for us, we also developed a pediatrics-specific ad."

Regardless of your marketing objective, a professional-looking website is a must. "Most physicians do fine with a site that costs $500 or less," says Borglum. It should be easy to read and navigate, so avoid slow-loading, animated graphics and busy background illustrations. Include recent photos and biographies of the practice's clinicians and staff; your office hours, address, and contact information; and a summary of what the practice offers. Gastroenterologist Patricia Raymond, who depends on a steady stream of new patients for her colonoscopy screening practice in Chesapeake, VA, has educational links on her website ( http://www.simplyscreening.com), as well as several videos in which she talks about colonoscopy.