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Physician Marketing: Can Your Patients Afford the Care They Need? How to Tell, and How to Help.

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

In this guest post, Dr. Janice Frates offers ways for healthcare providers to use caring, concern and affordability as medical practice marketing tools. Here are her suggestions to build rapport and inspire patient satisfaction because tough times are here to stay.

Janice Frates, PhDGradually, it’s dawning on all of us that the current recession is now the “new normal.” Economic growth is low, unemployment remains high, and 30 percent of homeowners owe more on their mortgage than their house’s market value.

People feel poorer, with good reason. Over two-thirds of Americans experienced a decline in net worth between 2007 and 2009. Most of this decline was due to reduced housing values, but stock and business equity losses also played a role. Median income adjusted for inflation declined seven percent from 2000 to 2010, the worst 10-year trend since the 1960s.

Squeezed by higher out-of-pocket costs, and with diminished economic prospects, Americans are becoming more cautious health care consumers. Patients are skipping or delaying many types of elective medical and dental care, and skimping on use of prescription drugs.

Almost half of respondents to a recent Consumer Reports survey reported taking steps to avoid medical care expenses, including some potentially risky actions to limit prescription drug costs: Not filling or refilling a prescription, taking an expired medication, sharing a prescription with someone else, and skipping a scheduled dose or splitting pills without consulting their physician or a pharmacist.

Medicare patients who reach the “doughnut hole” without any type of supplemental Part D coverage are twice as likely to discontinue taking medication as those who receive financial assistance. At the other end of the age spectrum, diaper-rash cream sales are rising as parents cut back on diaper purchases.

How physicians can help patients who are experiencing financial stress – and why it’s good business to do so:

  • Ask how your patients are faring in these difficult economic times. A general question reflects your concern about their overall wellbeing, and offers an opportunity for them to let you know if they are struggling. (“The past few years have been tough for a lot of people – how about you?”)
  • Ask patients with private insurance coverage if changes in their health insurance have increased their out-of-pocket costs. (“Health insurance costs more every year – are you having to pay more now for your care?”)
  • Be aware of, and talk about, treatment costs, especially for drugs. If your patients experience sticker shock at the pharmacy, at best they will wish you had given them some warning. At worst, they will consider you clueless—and they may not fill the prescription. So if you are prescribing an expensive medication, let patients know it will be costly and how you feel it will benefit them. (“This drug is expensive, but it will help you because…”).
  • Offer patients with affordability concerns information about resources that can help them. Several large retail chains offer pharmacy discount programs for commonly prescribed generics. Patients and providers can obtain free or low cost brand name medications through drug company pharmacy assistance programs.
  • You make it easier for patients to pay you by accepting credit cards, allowing phased payments, or providing other affordability options that might be appropriate in your practice situation.

Empathy can be as important as any clinical skill in patient satisfaction and retention. People remember who cared, and who helped, when times were tough for them. Doctors who take time to ask questions and are able to offer some practical information to patients experiencing financial stress will earn their long-term loyalty.

About the author: Janice Frates, PhD, is a professor of Health Care Administration at California State University Long Beach and a healthcare consultant: [email protected].

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