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Marketing: Marketing to Physicians: Time to Go Digital?

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New channels are needed to reach all generations.

The idea began as a quip. Mary Thomson, vice president of marketing and public relations at Abington (PA) Memorial Hospital, was talking to a specialist about the difficulties of contacting referring physicians to thank them for sending new patients. "You should have your top five referrers as your fab five in your phone," she laughed. Her joke then sparked an idea.

"Specialists really should have the numbers in their phone so when they're coming out of the OR they can click a number and even just leave a message," she says. "That goes a long way between physicians and relationship building and referral development."

So Thomson and her team set about creating a smartphone application that will allow physician leaders, all of whom with the 520-staffed-bed hospital have smartphones, to reach a referring physician's back-office line in just a few clicks.

This example is one of the many ways that hospitals are turning to digital channels to enhance communication as a part of their physician referral and recruitment strategies. Currently, 99% of physicians use the Internet and 64% use a smartphone—a number projected to jump to 81% in 2012—according to Manhattan Research's 2009 Taking the Pulse study. And as physicians' means of communicating change, healthcare marketers' methods must evolve along with them.

Digital communications, once thought to be primarily effective among younger doctors, is now common among all age groups, says Meredith Abreu Ressi, vice president of research at the New York research firm.

"In terms of physician tech adoption, there is this perception out there that new young kids coming out of medical school are really active in technology and older physicians are hold outs, but what we've seen in our studies is, over the past two to three years, that divide is shrinking," she says. "Older physicians are integrating that technology into their everyday practice."

Physician recruiters at Memorial Healthcare System, located in Hollywood, FL, amped up their online presence when they realized the growing importance of the Internet among physicians. They advertise on medical journal Web sites, subscribe to an online physician-only job search network, and post employment opportunities on the health system Web site. They, too, have noticed that digital adoption among physicians is now widespread.

"Technology has become pervasive in the industry and most physicians, just like [those in] other walks of life, have some technical prowess," says Sandra Dilts, administrative director of business development and physician relations at the seven-hospital system. "Whether it be responding by e-mail or text messaging, I think that it's not entirely segmented. However, five years ago I would say that those that responded to online sourcing were the physicians that were newer in their careers."

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