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5 Best Practice Concepts to Improve Marketing to Physicians

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

(This material is adapted from an article that we authored for Becker's Hospital Review, a bimonthly publication providing business and legal news and analysis for hospitals and health systems. Becker's Hospital Review reaches more than 15,000 people, primarily acute care hospital CEOs and CFOs. The marketing concepts discussed in this article apply to many professional, medical and healthcare marketing situations.)

It will be awhile before we know if the current courtship between hospitals and physicians produces a marriage made in heaven or a shotgun wedding. And the effectiveness of marketing to physicians will be a primary force in shaping the outcome.

Physician-hospital interaction has always been a busy intersection. Nothing's simple; physician audiences overlap, agendas compete, and personal, professional and organizational interests diverge. Some physicians are employees, others are referring and admitting physicians, and still others are prospects in the formation of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs).

What's more, the nation's healthcare system is something of a firestorm. And while there's no doubt about change, there is considerable uncertainty about the roadmap. We do know about the fuel; the formation of Accountable Care Organizations (by 2012) and phase-in of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (through 2014).

Marketing to physicians (physician relations, or other titles) is a critical business and management function. It is one of your most powerful tools for success in forming an ACO, establishing a Joint Venture, acquiring a practice, identifying, hiring and retaining high-value physicians and much more. It is the engine that protects and expands market share, promotionally supports physician practices, influences thought leaders, inspires collaboration, fosters a healthy environment for change, out-paces the competition, and about a thousand other things.

Of course everyone's situation, objectives and priorities are different, but here are five concepts that are widely useful; all critical components to enhance marketing success in hospital-physician integration.

Revisit your marketing plan and budget frequently.

Bring your microscope, your crystal ball...and a #2 pencil. It's frequently overlooked, but a successful marketing plan is a circular and dynamic process. There may have been a day when "feel good" objectives were sufficient. But activities directed toward physicians require quantifiable measures of effectiveness; you need to know what's working and what's not working long before you find yourself at the end of the road. Keep your goals in focus, but be prepared to make adjustments to strategies and tactics if needed.

An annual plan with quarterly reviews and updates is probably not adequate. And a 30,000-foot perspective and historic metrics are less useful when the environment is a moving target. Evaluate your marketing initiatives on a weekly basis.

Challenge your measures of effectiveness up close. Your marketing budget should demonstrate a solid and measurable Return-on-Investment (ROI). Keep your goals, and the budget to achieve them, aligned with reality. Enlist outside help with this one if necessary.

Build your brand; everyone wants a date with Miss America.

Physicians and patients alike want to associate themselves with a strong brand of success. Brand-building—the marketing practice of creating a mindset of positive identification and differentiation—is important for the general public, but vital to physician relations.

The measures of success include quality of care, positive outcomes, excellence in service, and clinical and technical innovation. Moreover, the brand and reputation of the hospital influences the process of inspiring physician referrals, recruiting physicians for employment and/or ACO participation.

Test yourself: How does your hospital brand measure-up in the public's perspective, in the collective mind of the medical community, and in the subjective soul of individual doctors? What is your branding message, and how can you better communicate it? And the acid test: How do you know what you think you know?

Create and use both objective and subjective tools to measure how your brand is being perceived. How can you better use new and old tools to establish a baseline? Consider performance metrics, standards of care, internal and external feedback, formal and informal surveys, advisory panels, patient and professional focus groups, thought-leader comments to clearly understand if your intended brand message is being received and perceived as intended. Keep your finger on this pulse and be prepared to make adjustments.

Don't dismiss mobile and social communications tools; leverage them.

Hospital websites are an expected standard, and most hospitals make good use of the Internet as a marketing tool with the general public. Some of the most successful hospital sites have wisely embraced online advertising, view/pay bills, find-a-doctor directories, patient portals, and even a secure repository for patients to store their medical information.

What's more, smart phones, texting, instant messaging, and email are now mainstream for the general public and physicians alike. Texting, Facebook, Twitter and other social systems are not exclusive to teens or the home PC. They are low cost and now commonplace for adults in all age groups including boomers. Mobile tools include routine and crisis public relations, disseminating ER wait times, text message updates from the OR to waiting family.

But the digital highway goes much further these days. Consider the value of an online physician portal, internal (staff) communications, and intranet by department or service area.
Use online and mobile tools for rumor control, internal/staff awareness, and highly individualized physician relations.

And INDIVIDUAL is the physician marketing "golden nugget." The distinction—and the break-through advantage—is that mobile devices enable highly targeted messaging. They are channels of immediate influence that were often dismissed as fads. If you are not already doing so, plan for and use innovative ideas that leverage these mainstream tools. Physicians are wired. Plug in.

Physician Relations is a measurable business activity, not just a box of chocolates.

Marketing, physician relations, referral development and the like are vital business functions accountable for measurable results. But successful programs, in our experience, recognize that at least two distinctly different skill sets are required.

One is a resource for marketing communication materials. These are the people who create advertising, news releases, websites, branding, etc. And the second category is business development. Both make vital contributions, but it's a classic pitfall to assume these skill sets are interchangeable.

Fortunately, many of the marketing activities and creative services can be outsourced and have a trackable ROI. And Physician Relations Management (PRM) is well beyond the "feel-good" days of a box of chocolates and a pocket calendar.

Further, software solutions are available to track physician contacts, activities, referral patterns, document issues (and resolutions) and identify "high-value" physicians. A good system will also integrate information across various hospital departments and locations and provide a measure of ROI and report detailed metrics that would frighten a paper spreadsheet.

Know each physician as a unique individual deeply: like a family member.

Design your physician marketing program to discover and understand what's important to each individual physician at a personal level. Easier said than done, of course, but the objectives are to identify high-value physicians, thought-leaders and champions, reveal more closely held issues, and provide insight to essential values.

While marketing efforts communicate with large groups of people, success—the "purchase" decision—occurs one person at a time, even when you're selling a concept. More often than not, people don't buy for logical reasons. They buy for emotional reasons.

The "deciding factors" may not be business terms or compensation arrangements. Individuals may be influenced by intangibles such as spouse/home/family factors, associating with certain other physicians, recognition/respect, sense of purpose and value, community and cultural fit, the need to "be heard" and influence decisions, frustration and burnout, and others.

The bottom line in physician relations is, as Zig Ziglar says: "You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want."

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