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Tips on Marketing Your Oncology Practice to Patients

Tips on Marketing Your Oncology Practice to Patients

MIAMI BEACH—Being a good doctor with a good reputation for delivering quality care should be enough to get all the patient referrals a physician needs. Right? “Wrong,” Dr. Eric Berkowitz said at the Network for Oncology Communication and Research (NOCR) meeting. “You’re no big deal; there are thousands like you,” he said.

In his high-energy talk—the marketing equivalent of the antidrug film “Scared Straight”— Dr. Berkowitz cajoled the NOCR members to face up to the realities of the medical profession today and the need for marketing.

Dr. Berkowitz, of the University of Massachusetts School of Marketing, said that practices must define their competitive differential, ie, the factors that make one practice stand out from another. Expertise, technology, and quality of care are the most common answers. These are aspects of what he calls the primary product oncologists are selling.

The next question is how to get this message of excellence across to the public, and this requires a consideration of how customers (ie, patients) really evaluate a physician’s practice.

Dr. Berkowitz drew an analogy with shopping for a car. No one buys a car because it has four wheels, an engine, and gets a person from point A to point B—all cars do that. “What kind of car do you own?” he went around the room asking. The answer ranged from Volvos to Jaguars–from safety to flash.

People do not buy specific cars because they serve them differently. Rather, they buy a particular car because they perceive it as being different from other brands. These perceptions have to do with what they “feel” is important to them, he explained—safety, reliability, versatility, status, or flash.

How does this relate to an oncology practice? “When a patient agrees to come to your practice for care, the primary product is technology and expertise or getting from point A to point B,” he said. How can a patient judge the primary product, ie, the expertise of an oncologist, hematologist, or radiologist? “They can’t,” Dr. Berkowitz said.

Customers Infer Quality of Care

He explained that an oncologist’s customer—whether it be a patient, a managed care company, or a referring physician—can only infer quality of care. They do this by looking at patient procedures, how easy it is to access the practice, how the office looks and feels, waiting time, and interpersonal relations.

Dr. Berkowitz said that every office should have a “sales staff” to ask referring physicians what they need to make it easier for them to refer patients to the oncologist. “Let’s not call them salespeople, let’s call them key physician liaison representatives,” he quipped. These representatives should do “missionary work,” making at least four calls a year to referring or potential referring physicians’ offices, being sure to talk to the nurse.

“The doctor doesn’t really make the referral, the nurse does. The main question that should be asked is always, What can I do to make your life easier?”

The “sales representative” should issue a quarterly physician tracking report that will show if referrals have gone up or down. Any change should be followed up. If the tracking reports shows that referrals from a particular doctor have fallen off, for example, the “salesperson” can address this point head on and ask where the office went wrong.

Dr. Berkowitz explained that patients who have bad experiences will complain to their referring doctor, and an oncologist has to know about this. “The only way you will get doctors to trust their patients in the hands of another clinician is through personal contact,” he said.

Patient satisfaction surveys are also important, he said. Not only will they let the oncologist know how he or she is doing, but they can also be used if the referring physician reports a problem.

“Don’t keep your referring physicians out of the loop,” Dr. Berkowitz said. “Network your computers, issue the patient satisfaction surveys.” This way, if a patient does have a problem, the referring doctor can explain that the experience was not typical of the practice.

Another way to boost patient referrals, he said, is to be noticed by the patients themselves and get them to demand that their primary physician refer to you. “How many of you advertise?” he asked. A few members raised their hands. “Customers need access to your business,” he said. “You have competition that will steal your business; some of them even advertise on billboards. I saw the Cleveland Clinic billboards when I drove on I-95 today.”

Patients are not always comfortable talking about their problems and so they will seek out alternative sources of information, often turning to the Internet. “How many of you have websites?” Dr. Berkowitz asked. A few raised their hands. “About 80% of medical webpages are terrible,” he said. “Sheer drivel and full of useless information.” He suggested that a good website would allow patients to set up an appointment on the webpage, find answers to frequently asked questions, and e-mail a question to the doctor.

“Oh, you don’t want to do that,” a doctor in the audience said. “We don’t get paid for that.” Dr. Berkowitz replied, “Oh yes you do.” The office’s nurse can answer 95% of the questions that will be asked, he said. Plus, the value of an intangible service can be just the edge that puts an office above the competition.

The same doctor felt that if a doctor puts something in writing it would remove “the ambiguity we rely on.” Dr. Berkowitz responded that “these are your customers.” Telephone calls at the end of the day take an inordinate amount of time, he said, and e-mail, if used effectively and judiciously, can cut down time on the phone. “You wouldn’t put into writing anything you wouldn’t say in person,” he reassured the audience.

Dr. Berkowitz hammered home his points: “You need to understand what your customer is buying from you, and add value beyond the clinical service.”

 
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