Converting physicians to the marketing religion

How to convince doctors that marketing is essential

What could keep physicians happier than a successful practice with buoyant revenues? Although many physicians are reluctant to spend a lot of time thinking about marketing, increased revenues will quickly show them it really is worth the effort.

Every marketing executive who has worked with a medical practice has a war story about convincing doctors that marketing is worth the money. "You can’t shove something down their throats," says Theresa Erickson, CME, assistant administrator at the Hattiesburg (MS) Clinic. "You have to spoon feed it to them."

In her 103-physician clinic, Erickson works with some doctors who don’t give much credence to a decade of success, she says. "I’ve found the best way to deal with them is to let their passions dictate my actions." For example, when physicians at the clinic noted there were new drug treatments for osteoporosis that worked if detection was early enough, Erickson developed a program that would market a new screening and treatment regimen.

"You have to use words they respond to, like ‘educate,’ not ‘publicize,’" she says. "You talk about prevention, not advertising and about public service, not marketing. Doctors respond to that language."

Alan Flippin, president of ADF Medical Practice Development in Germantown, TN, agrees. "You talk in terms of programs that will help them treat patients better," he says. "That’s why they are in medicine, to take care of patients. You just convince them that marketing will help them provide better service."

Flippin adds that you have to develop programs that fit the doctors’ styles and personalities. If they are "teachers" at heart, you can develop a program that includes educational breakfasts with referring physicians.

He also recommends relating a marketing budget to the increased revenue that can be achieved. "I tell them I can get 1% increased billing per month for 24 months. I take that increase in revenue and ask if I can spend a given percentage of that new money on the marketing plan." Most doctors are willing to take such a gamble, Flippin says, since they don’t view it as money out of their own pockets.

One cardiology practice with which Flippin works was given this option in the development of a "VIP" plan. The program aimed to provide referred patients with the best possible treatments. Patients were ushered into upscale waiting rooms and offered refreshments. Their entire experience with the practice was designed to be as comfortable as possible with minimal waiting.

The success of the program was easily tracked, Flippin says, because all the VIP patients were given special tracking cards. "We spent about $6,000 to develop the plan," Flippin says, "and we made $130,000."

He says any plan your physicians develop should offer such easy tracking. "It should be obvious to you that the plan is working," he says. "If it isn’t, then maybe you should rethink the plan."

Crunch the numbers to convince

Hard numbers also work to get physicians’ attention, says Keith Borglum, vice president of Professional Marketing and Management of Santa Rosa, CA. "If income is dropping you can only cut costs so much without affecting the quality of care," he says. But if you can show physicians those numbers, they may be more willing to spend the money needed to save their practice.

Often, the person who brings in the most revenue is the least willing to spend money, says Meryl Luallin, chief executive officer of Sullivan/Luallin of San Diego. "Then the issue is about governance — about whether one doctor or a small clique can block the will of the rest of the medical staff. If they can, then you have to recognize that these doctors are running the practice."

The best way to gain acceptance of a marketing plan is to get the physicians to come up with the plan, says Luallin. "If you have more and more unhappy patients, ask what they think about the trend and what they suggest you do to change it. That makes them part authors."