There are several important healthcare marketing lessons hidden in the recent Los Angeles Times article titled Dentists turn to marketing after getting brush-off from patients. Although it is primarily about dentists and dental marketing in the economic downturn, the important marketing takeaways also apply to medical practices and hospitals.
We'll look past any immediate temptation to indict the article for being naive about the consequences of the nation's economic woes. Dentists, doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers are no more "guilty" of finding ways to deal with the downturn in business than your neighborhood grocery store, auto mechanic or dry cleaner. (The Times could consider the upheaval in the newspaper industry.)
It's really not surprising that the American consumer has been financially squeezed, and buying patterns for healthcare in general and dentistry in particular are, to put it mildly, painfully tight. Our previous articles about the "New Normal" speak about the stinging and lingering effects of the recession for doctors, dentists and hospitals. Coincidental to the Times publication, American Medical News reported that the Decline in Doctor Office Visits Could be Permanent.
"The number of visits patients make to physicians in a given month—a vital sign for the whole health care economy—has been declining consistently, according to multiple tracking studies, companies and researchers," writes amednews.com.
"Analysts say those numbers may not bounce back, even with health system reform. That's because a struggling economy, higher insurance deductibles, and the efforts by health plans and others to reduce utilization have altered patient patterns, perhaps permanently. Patients now often seek office visits—or any interaction with the health system—only when a problem can't be ignored."
The Times article is well worth reading. Equally worthwhile are the Reader Comments which follow the main text. Notice that there are a large number of comments, and somewhat surprisingly, many of them are negative or bitter about dentists and dentistry. (More on this in a minute.)
From a healthcare marketing point of view, dentists, physicians and hospital marketing professionals should look particularly at how these important concepts come through:
The fervent community feedback attached to this article is a bit of shocker in its negativity. While it's not a scientific survey, the section provides a public relations reminder of its own. Here are some examples of the dominant tone of voice:
Not all the comments about the article were negative. At least a few—like this one from the professional ranks—wrote from a higher altitude:
As we mentioned, there's nothing scientific about this sample of public sentiments. Nevertheless, there seems to be a collective (negative) feeling that dentists—and by extension, other healthcare providers also—are overpriced and over paid.
And while this isn't a universal public attitude, it's a timely and passionate reminder for dental, hospital and healthcare marketing professionals. Individuals who are frustrated by the recession or their personal situation can also direct their anger toward the provider.
As a consequence, marketing, advertising and public relations for dental practices (and others in the healthcare delivery system) is more difficult than ever.
Editor Note: For a follow-up article, we've inquired with the American Dental Association and other sources regarding authoritative data about public attitudes and perceptions of dentists and dentistry.