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Physician, Market Thyself

Elyas Bakhtiari, for HealthLeaders Media, May 29, 2008

It wasn't long ago that many physicians considered "marketing" a dirty word. Most doctors choose the field of medicine because of an interest in patient care, so it's not surprising that some would find the concept of selling or pushing their services to be in conflict with the Hippocratic oath.

But times have changed. It's not as easy for a physician to build a successful practice by relying on word-of-mouth and a loyal community of patients. With reimbursement constantly being cut and costs rising, the margin for error in managing practice finances is much smaller. Physicians have been forced to start treating their practices more like a business—it's tough to provide quality patient care if your practice is bankrupt—and most successful businesses rely on some form of marketing.

That doesn't mean physicians should push treatments on patients or star in their own infomercials. It just means physicians should view their practices through a marketing lens and strategically consider their practice image and ways to attract and retain patients.

Take the debate over the costs and benefits of EMRs, for example. The argument has become pretty predictable: Proponents argue that EMRs lower healthcare costs and reduce medical errors, and reluctant physicians claim the systems are too expensive and can be a burden on smaller practices. But why don't more physicians consider the marketing benefits of EMRs when weighing the pros and cons? Surveys have shown that patients prefer providers who use EMRs over those who don't 51% to 17%. There still may be valid reasons for holding off on an EMR purchase, but it's worth at least incorporating all of the benefits into the discussion.

An article I read earlier this week about the debate offered as an example an endocrinologist who can't afford an EMR system, so patients in his office carry index cards with them listing their brief medical history. I wonder how many patients have left the practice because of his antiquated record system? Given the choice, most patients will choose a competitor that doesn't rely on index cards.

At first, implementing an EMR may not seem like a marketing issue—we traditionally think of advertisements, direct mail, or public speaking when we think of marketing. But Patrick T. Buckley, who wrote Physician Entrepreneurs: Marketing Toolkit and is speaking on an upcoming audioconference about physician practice marketing, argues that marketing and operations are integrally wound together. Great group practices, he says, are able to provide a positive patient experience by combining the two approaches.

From that perspective, not only is EMR implementation a potential marketing issue, but so is almost every other decision about planning your practice's growth and understanding what's happening in your market. Julie Wright, CEO of Sound Family Medicine, and Buckley's co-presenter on the audioconference, for example, focused on marketing for referrals, and by developing a marketing plan to address the top 24 diagnoses in the practice, was able to increase visits per patient from 3 to 4.2, which generated $4 million in charges.

Part of the problem is many physicians harbor misconceptions about what marketing entails. Some physicians are already starting to come around to the necessity of practice marketing, and once more of them realize that it is not just a process, but a necessary way of looking at your practice, it will become a more integral part of practice operations.

Editor's note: To hear more about practice marketing from Patrick Buckley and Julie Wright, sign up for Marketing Your Physician Practice: A Guide to Growth, a HealthLeaders Media audioconference on June 12.


Elyas Bakhtiari is a managing editor with HealthLeaders Media. He can be reached at ebakhtiari@healthleadersmedia.com.
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