Academic practices could benefit from marketing ed

Competition puts life into practice promotion

Academic practices used to be the last bastion of physicians who didn't want to worry about managed care, about competition, or about marketing.

But the real world is encroaching fast on these havens, and more are realizing that if they want to survive, they have to become more like their private counterparts. (See related story, p. 92.) That requires marketing to attract patients and finding ways to keep them loyal.

"In the past, academic medical centers were referral centers," says Allen Howe, director of marketing, contracting, and payer relations at Seattle's University of Washington Medical Center and its affiliated practice, UW Physicians. "But now there is competition for specialty business, and with more health care revolving around primary care practices, academic medical centers have had to build their own or ally with others in order to make their mark."

But more than just realizing the change, the academic practice now has to go out into the community and educate the population on the range of care offered, and then compete for patients with some of the same physicians which the university practices and medical center has trained in the first place.

It took years for Howe and his colleagues to get the UW Physicians doctors to understand the necessity of marketing. And for three years they have had an aggressive campaign of print, television, and radio advertising designed to attract patients.

"It took a long time to get to three years ago," Howe admits. "But since we started, they have been behind us."

Overcoming misperceptions

The biggest part of marketing an academic practice is getting the public to understand that they have access to it, Howe says.

"Most people didn't know they could come here unless they were really sick," he says. "Our primary care network UW Physicians, the UW Medical Center, and the Harborview Medical Center each has a different role and a different public perception. The public knew that we are the leaders in breakthrough physicians and are one of the highest ranked practices in the country. But people didn't know they could come to us for their general care."

Keith Borglum, vice president of Professional Management and Marketing in Santa Rosa, CA, agrees that misperceptions can be great. "Based on an inner-city location, people think it is a training facility using inexperience doctors practicing on welfare patients. Or the perception might be that it only performs high-end experimental medicine on last-resort patients."

In either case, a publicity campaign can change those perceptions, Borglum says, but you have to know what those thoughts are first. A good starting point might be a market assessment of public opinion, he adds.

With the addition of seven primary care clinics in King County, the word is now getting out about UW Physicians. "We just have to tear down those ivory tower walls by being there and being convenient," Howe says.

Advertising brought in the calls

The ad campaign has also had an impact. Howe says that when the ads run, the number of toll free calls go up.

David Nash, MD, associate dean for health policy at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, also thinks that ad campaigns can work. At his practice, an aggressive ad campaign has kept the university affiliated practice in the black despite being one of four academic medical facilities in the area. "We are busy, and we are financially healthy," he says.

UW Physicians is also starting a community outreach program that will include health information talks and screenings. One innovative approach Howe has taken is to give talks at the flagship store of the outdoor equipment company REI. Those talks are also filmed and shown on the University of Washington cable television station.

"That strategy to help educate people is a real part of our mission," he says. "We are a university, and that is one of our primary goals. That we get some PR mileage out of it is a bonus."

Getting the word out to referring physicians in the five state area - Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho - serviced by the UW teaching hospital is easier. "We have physician liaisons who go out into the community regularly and work on any problems they may have."

The practice also touts a program that allows physicians to use the Internet to view patient records on a secure Web site with the appropriate password. That allows them to see lab results and discharge reports in a very timely manner. "We make sure they know they can get information where and when they need it," Howe says. Referring docs also have access to continuing medical education activities.

It all combines to help physicians choose the University health system not just for special cases, but for general care when another one of the half dozen hospitals in Seattle would do.

Borglum says he knows physicians who keep their names in front of potential referring physicians by sending out a copy of a medical school text they authored.

Another good idea is a newsletter to residents and fellows which can help keep them in touch, interested, and referring, Borglum says.

The biggest piece of advice Howe has for academic practices interested in improving their profile is to know your message. "Academic medical centers are a mystery to the general public. If you ask 10 people, there are 10 different answers. Some are clear: Children's hospital has a clear message. But others do not. If you mention Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Institute, people assume it is for all cancer treatment. But it isn't. It's only for bone marrow transplants. We have a real challenge of how to get the message out about who we are, what we can do, and how you can benefit from it."

Multiple missions

Howe says he isn't sure how far down that path UW Physicians is yet. "We have multiple missions - education, teacher training, and as a competitor to the very doctors we train. We have to come up with a winning strategy that straddles all three. We choose to focus on what makes us special - the UW physicians. That is our message."

Nash says that touting your strengths is the best way to go. "Focus on the expertise of the people in your practice, measure and demonstrate your positive outcomes, and then let the public know. If you can deliver a higher quality product, that's your key."

· Keith Borglum, Vice president, Professional Management & Marketing, Santa Rosa, CA. Telephone: (707) 546-4433.

· Allen Howe, Director of Marketing, Contracting, and Payer Relations, UW Physicians, Seattle. Telephone: (206) 548-4179.

· David Nash, MD, Associate Dean for Health Policy, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia. Telephone: (215) 955-6969.

· Medical Group Management Association, Englewood, CO. Telephone: (888) 608-5602.