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Patient Relationships: Success Formula for Marketing to Patients

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

doctor no white coatThe other day, while waiting in the office of a physician, I realized that his program for internal marketing to his patients was nearly invisible…yet it was highly effective in reaching and retaining patients. Invisible isn't quite the right word. Effortless is a better description.

This doctor—"my doctor," an Internist in a multi-disciplinary group—is someone I've known for several years. His credentials and reputation are top-notch, patients and professional colleagues alike respect his clinical skills, plus he’s open and easily approachable. And I'd recommend him and the practice anytime. (And often have.)

Except for a stethoscope close at hand, his doctor-office attire is much like his patients, wearing “business casual” slacks and long-sleeved dress shirt. I recall asking him one day why I never saw him in the traditional, doctor’s white coat.

He admitted that he sometimes dons “his doctor costume” when at the hospital. But in the office with patients, he explained, that not wearing a white coat removed a psychological barrier between him and patients. The absence of the coat helped him as a doctor and eased communications with patients. And in effect, what wasn’t there helped the marketing message to patients translate as natural, easy and friendly.

Marketing to patients is your innermost social circle…

In this particular practice, as with many others, there’s a great deal more than “losing the lab coat” that makes internal marketing efforts successful. But, done well, the interaction with the existing patient base—your closest and innermost social circle—was virtually invisible, almost effortless, and perhaps most important, it is sincere.

The textbook objectives and benefits of marketing to patients include:

  • Improved patient compliance and clinical outcomes;
  • Engendering trust and confidence;
  • Enhanced practice and provider reputation;
  • Patient referrals;
  • Patient retention and recall;
  • Positive online reviews;
  • Superior patient experience;
  • Inspire loyal champions;
  • Repeat and new business; and
  • Fuel Word of Mouth

But in a broader sense, a program that fosters and maintains genuine personal relationships, one person at a time, every time, drives the success of any internal marketing effort. Patients who consequently feel they have an ownership interest (“my doctor,” and “my practice”) are, in marketing terms, bonded to the practice. They've taken themselves out of the market.

Curiously, many physicians believe that simply being a good doctor is sufficient to attract new business. We’re all in favor of clinical excellence. By whatever measure, having excellent medical training, extensive experience and a respected reputation are a wonderful foundation. But these traits alone do not carry the day when marketing to patients.

Four Internal Marketing Success Factors

Healthcare providers appreciate the idea that, in marketing terms, existing patients are easier to reach. Communicating with this audience includes fewer barriers, and can often be done more easily and at a lower cost. What’s more, building rapport and engaging in a continuing relationship is a natural extension to an established connection between patient and practice. Critical success factors include:

  • PLANNED PROGRAM: While it’s “nice to be nice,” (and certainly everyone should be), successful internal marketing and communications are the products of carefully planned steps along the care continuum toward specific objectives.
  • PATIENT-CENTERED CULTURE: Every office has its own culture, either by default or by design. A people-centric culture evolves over time by design, with top-down leadership, training, regular practice and teamwork.
  • STAFF IS VITAL: In a typical office visit, a patient will “see the doctor” for a fraction of the total encounter. Staff training—including how interactions are to be handled, the words to use, the process steps, and the messages to communicate—is vital to an effective internal program.
  • FEEDBACK AND MEASURE: In a broader sense, the protocols within the office should [a] capture feedback (such as via comment cards); [b] inspire patient referrals and testimonials (you’ve got to ask); and [c] track and recognize referral sources. Patient referrals, for example, can only be measured if there’s a system in place to track them.

Why Patients Don’t Refer (and How to Fix That)

Within the practice walls, everyone knows everything about the full palette of services for patients. Doctors and staff work close-up, and are deeply immersed in every detail of health care delivery. Not so with the patient who knows mainly that your service capabilities include, well…just their most immediate experience. Often, they neither know nor care about the hundreds of ways the practice can help others with a different need.

The answer—and the essential ingredient of marketing to patients—is to provide an awareness of the broader range of service capabilities within the practice, for themselves or for friends and family members. We've written often about the power of Internal Marketing in healthcare, and many of the ways to use marketing to patients.

Often it is as fundamental as talking with patients and simply asking for referrals. In part, it is about informing others of your practice benefits, and also, it is a matter of talking with patients as satisfied customers, as practice-bonded champions, and as people with a continuing relationship.

For related reading, see our page about ethical and effect doctor practice marketing.

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