Urologists who are not part of hospital-owned practices face a “perfect storm” of economic pressures that require effective marketing strategies to maintain competitiveness, a medical marketing and advertising specialist advised attendees at the 2015 American Urological Association annual meeting.
The move toward integrated health systems has brought more specialists into healthcare, and the resulting provider networks have increased control over patient volume. Implementation of the Affordable Care Act will increase the incentives for large systems and narrow provider networks.
“Size does matter,” said Lonnie Hirsch, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Hirsch Healthcare Consulting. “A larger market for hospitals and health systems translates into higher reimbursement. Large group practices can command higher reimbursement than smaller groups can, but not as high as most hospitals can. Smaller groups will struggle to compete and survive.”
Referring to the “80/20” rule, Mr Hirsch predicted that 20% of healthcare players eventually will control 80% of patients and the associated healthcare revenue. The challenge of independent practices is to remain among the players.
Effective marketing can level the playing field, he said. Once anathema to the medical profession, marketing and advertising have become essential for maintaining relevance and competitiveness in the world of increasingly narrow provider networks.
Proactive Marketing Strategies
Urologists can use effective marketing communication strategies to inform and influence decision makers, encourage proactive health behaviors, and ultimately guide patients toward their practices as opposed to the competition.
Mr Hirsch outlined a 4-step strategy for effective marketing aimed at helping urology practices remain competitive:
- Develop a strategic marketing plan
- Develop and market a unique brand and value
- Use patient-directed marketing communication to reduce reliance on physician referrals
- Protect physician referral relationships to the extent possible.
A well-designed and well-executed strategic marketing plan saves time and money. Likening the plan to clinical decision-making, he said urologists should “think of a marketing plan as your exam, diagnosis, and treatment plan for attracting the patients and cases you want. A marketing plan saves time and money by structuring the best strategies and tactics aligned to achieve your goals and avoid trial and error, especially error.”
Focus on Value and Branding
A strategic marketing plan should take into account service and competitive strengths and value, the lifestyle and demographics of the community, the competition within the service area, and the patients, cases, and services the practice would like to attract. The principals’ personalities and preferences also figure into the development of the plan, along with key goals and objectives, and the level of risk tolerance.
Unique branding and emphasis on value are keys to effective marketing.
“Your position is the differentiating, value-added answer to the question ‘Why you?’” said Mr Hirsch. “What is the most important value that you want your target audience to remember about you?”
Brand positioning must be true, memorable, differentiating, compelling, and defensible.
High-value branding offers multiple benefits to a practice, beginning with distinguishing the practice from the competition in a meaningful way. Patients are customers who are willing to pay more for a quality brand, Mr Hirsch said. Branding accelerates and enhances customer attraction and retention. Resulting loyalty creates equity that increases the financial value of a business.
Branding should reflect a “singular brand that you own” in the mind of a prospective patient. Once established, branding requires consistent delivery on promises. Branding represents the sum of a customer’s experiences and expectations related to a product or service, and ultimately, a practice’s reputation rests on meeting those expectations in a consistent manner.
Medical practices have more communication tools than ever to implement a patient-directed marketing strategy and decrease reliance on traditional physician-controlled referrals. In particular, the growth of the Internet as a major source of information has created new opportunities for marketing, including search advertising, online display ads, use of social media, and search engine optimization for a practice’s website.
Despite the growth of Internet-based information gathering, traditional media continue to offer valuable patient-directed marketing messages. Television, radio, print media, outdoor advertising, and direct mail all can play a role in effective communication of a practice’s brand and value.
A strategy to maintain traditional physician referral relationships begins with the identification of a person to “own” the job, said Mr Hirsch. A physician liaison has become a necessity in many instances, because of increased competition for patients and associated revenue. Hospitals and independent physician groups have begun to rely on physician liaisons as integral to their strategies to maintain referrals.
A Physician Liaison
A physician liaison can be a full-time employee or a part-time contractor. The liaison’s activities should target doctors who do not refer to the practice and are not employed by integrated health systems. The liaison should help implement and maintain an ongoing communication system with existing and potential referring physicians.
A physician liaison should have a natural ability to establish relationships, know how to perform appropriate “reconnaissance” before making contacts, know how to advance relationships, and always have a goal in mind in advance of meeting with a prospect. A good physician liaison should be a self-starter and a goal-driven person.
“This is someone who is your representative to the medical community,” said Mr Hirsch. “It does not have to be a clinical person. As a matter of fact, in some cases, it’s better if it isn’t. It’s a marketing role. It’s about being perceived as a resource for the practice. You don’t want someone who is like a pharma rep and goes in and says, ‘Here’s what I’ve got to sell, and here’s what’s in my bag.’”
The physician liaison should approach the job from the perspective of “this is who we are; if you are seeing any cases like this, here’s how we can help you,” Mr Hirsch said.
The liaison should learn how referrals are handled in each practice contacted. Physicians may handle referrals directly, but they may also delegate to others, such as a nurse or a nonclinical staff person. In some practices, the referral process may be as simple as a list of doctors that the front desk staff hands out to patients.
“You have to have a strategy for communicating with, understanding who’s involved in a practice, what they’re interested in, why they would find what you do interesting, and you have to keep going back with valuable information,” said Mr Hirsch.
“If you are positioning your business as an added-value resource to that office and their patients, you’re going to get referrals, more than your fair share. If you’re just going in with your hand out and saying ‘feed me,’ you’re probably not going to get very far,” he said.