Passive or Aggressive? What's Your Physician Relations Strategy?

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, February 11, 2009

It's a twist on the old chicken-and-egg question. Which is more important, marketing to physicians or direct-to-consumer marketing? Although there are some who still insist that plenty of patients self-refer, the fact is that—at least for now—patients usually go where their doctors tell them to go, especially for major procedures.

The just-released 2009 HealthLeaders Media Industry Survey of 1,148 healthcare leaders from across seven departments—including finance, quality, and marketing—offers some insight. But will it answer the question once and for all?

Who's your best customer?
Let's face it, the real money is in referrals, argue those who say the physician is king. That's why hospitals are increasingly deploying fleets of salespeople to call on physicians to ask for their business. It's why they're scrutinizing referral patterns and calling docs whose stats have dropped off to ask them what's up. And why they're engaging in two-way conversations with physicians, stepping up those face-to-face visits, and getting the whole hospital involved in the effort to increase referral market share.

Then again, maybe they aren't.

What's your style?
In our survey, we asked marketing leaders about the initiatives that their organizations regularly undertake to increase or maintain physician referrals.

The largest percent, almost 76%, said they engage in information sharing (communicating to physicians about the hospital). A smaller number, 65.5%, say they engage in information-seeking to learn about physicians' concerns. A respectable number conduct in the field, face to face sales calls, but only half said they have in-house programs.

Another discouraging number, only 20.69% say they have a full staff commitment to physician relations. And almost 13% said they have no regular initiatives at all.

Hospitals that aren't taking advantage of all of these methods must live in that elusive, magical place called the competition-free market. It's like hand writing a letter with a quill and ink pen and delivering it by horse-drawn carriage.

At least marketing leaders recognize this.

How aggressive are you?
In our survey, we asked respondents: "How aggressive is your hospital in marketing to physicians?" Aside from the nearly 15% who said they are not aggressive at all, the answers were evenly spread along the spectrum. About 29% said they are highly aggressive, 30% said they were moderately aggressive, and 27% said they are slightly aggressive. Not exactly a bell curve.

So what's going on here?

Have you hugged your CEO today?
One question hints at the answer, suggesting marketers just don't have enough influence over physician relations efforts. Or, more specifically, they don't have enough much influence over the leader who is ultimately responsible for volume: The CEO.

We asked marketing leaders to describe their place in the CEO's inner circle. About 30% said they are a key, valued advisor. A larger number said they can get the ear of the CEO when needed.

Interestingly, about 10% said they have little or no interaction with the CEO. I'm guessing that many who chose that response are the same folks who said they aren't aggressive and have no programs to boost physician referrals.

More bad news on this front: About 27% of marketing leaders rate their organization's marketing as "very strong." The number of CEOs who agreed? Eight percent.

What are you doing?
The fight for market share has become increasingly brutal. And, along with it, so has the fight for referral share. Any hospital or health system or clinic or program that is not doing everything they can to convert those splitters into loyals, any organization that has passive efforts or are making no effort at all should take another look at their strategy.

I spoke to a CEO recently who said that, in his market, which has a mostly affluent and mostly older population, there's enough business and market share to go around. It's a crowded market, but his hospital has a good chunk of the market share.

"Still," I said. "Wouldn't you like to have more?"

What do you suppose his answer was?

And, by the way, what's yours?

Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at

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