Free, But Priceless: Why Patients Change Doctors

By Kathy Roy Gaughran
Senior Marketing Strategist

Headshot of a black, white, and gray colored dog staring at the cameraAmong the trending buzzwords in healthcare marketing are labels related to the “consumer decision journey,” patient journey,” or even “purchasing funnel.”

The orderly process steps in selecting a healthcare provider begins online with research, awareness and other steps that lead to a provider selection and a new patient appointment.

But don’t kid yourself; patients don’t automatically cross the chasm from “purchase” to “loyalty.”

Patients take the role of informed consumers. Just as they behave in a retail purchase situation, patients increasingly expect (and evaluate) value and benefits to flow from their purchase decision. And they’re willing the change providers when they find better value.

Often the decision to change providers hinges on the patient experience. Disappearing patients will leave because they feel of an attitude of indifference. Failing to inspire loyalty—and retaining patients—often has little to do with clinical competence.

Patients will switch doctors for many reasons. In the eyes of the typical consumer, one white-coat-doctor looks about the same as the next. Sometimes it’s the free, but priceless, experience ingredients that make all the difference.

A colleague provided the following real-world example. It’s about a pet owner who switched from one veterinary practice to another—stick with me on this—and it illustrates important lessons for doctors and medical practices.

The DVM office that we had been going to for years was close to home. It turns out that the convenient location was probably it’s best selling point. The office had no computer system; records were handwritten on index cards.

Staff changes were frequent; always the same doctor, but never the same people at the front desk. And, perhaps most annoying, calling for an appointment was always a challenge. When someone did answer the phone, it seemed like an interruption for them, plus their hours were limited.

Recently, we couldn’t get through to our regular vet about a minor medical issue, so we called a competitor down the street. The difference was obvious from first phone call.

  • They answered the phone: “Thank you for calling North Hills Clinic. This is Brittany. How can I help your pet today?”
  • The same-day appointment was set quickly; it seemed as if entirely at OUR schedule.
  • We were greeted at the door as if we had been lifelong friends. Every staff member greeted us with a smile, a friendly hello, and the same warm, feel-right-at-home welcome for our Blue Heeler Mix.
  • In the reception area, a digital photo frame displayed changing images of proud pet owners and their critters.
  • Cheerful and pet-friendly technicians and assistants made the entire process smooth and seamless, which minimized the wait time, and leveraged the doctor’s time with other appointments.
  • Our encounters with everyone seemed to be oriented to the health and well-being of the pet, and not the next-in-line chart to process through a system.
  • At checkout, the home care instructions were printed, easy to read and follow. And the bill for service was customized to include a picture of our pet, Goofy Ruthie, right at the top.

OK, none of these little touches have anything to do with the clinical quality of care…although I have greater confidence in a well-organized office with friendly staff and doctors.

And as a result, we’ll not be returning to our previous DVM office. Our loyalty just moved down the street.

Patients are no longer “just patients.” Selecting a competent provider is no assurance of retention or loyalty without good reason to stay connected to your practice. The lesson in our story is that the entire patient experience is vital to patient retention. And what’s more, the things that make a big difference to the consumer are often free…but priceless.

Let us know if you’re using “free, but priceless” ideas in your medical practice. It doesn’t take much, and usually costs very little, to make a bit impression. To get your creative juices flowing, see our previous article titled, Small Things Thank Build Patient Experience Big-time


And for more on this topic, read: Empowered Patients: Mad as Hell and Not Taking It Anymore.

Kathy Gaughran

Kathy Roy Gaughran
Senior Marketing Strategist at Healthcare Success
In her career, Kathy has helped over 4,000 clients all over North America achieve their growth goals. As an award-winning strategic marketing planner, Kathy has been involved in both the high-level strategies required for long-term sustainability, plus the tactical execution used to accomplish the day-to-day successes. Kathy’s clients include practices with annual revenues well over $10 million and with annual marketing budgets up to $900,000. In addition, Kathy is an accomplished speaker, appearing at countless national, local and state healthcare associations. Kathy is a member of the American Marketing Association and The Direct Marketing Association.



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