A few years ago, the orthopedic practice of Summit Medical Group approached Points Group, a health care marketing firm, for branding assistance. “Summit Medical Group was the biggest orthopedic practice in the state — about 50 doctors — but no one knew about them,” said Points Group Managing Partner Thomas Hofstetter. “They wanted to establish a brand as a single group, and we developed a strategy for them, positioning the physicians as a unified organization. We continue to service them today.”
Doctors in a practice who try to do their own marketing often focus on the wrong issues, he said. “Many of them will try to represent themselves as individuals, by name,” said Hofstetter. “But you have to focus on the practice, because patients today look at healthcare providers as a business that provides a service. Today, it’s all about the patient experience, which is not limited to the ability to heal.”
One client, for example, complained of an inability to get new patients, despite its talented team of medical professionals. “So, we tried calling the front desk and the experience was awful,” said Hofstetter.
“We then trained the staff to be responsive and polite, and it made a big difference. Surveys indicate that 85 percent of people engage in online research before they decide on a specialist; they’re looking for outcomes but they’re also looking at other qualities, like your bedside manner.”
A formal plan
Many physician practice groups don’t have a formal online marketing plan, and they don’t pay enough attention to developing a marketing strategy. “We’ve worked with practices that bill $50 million to $60 million a year, yet they don’t even have a 12-month strategy mapped out,” Hofstetter said. “You have to be online — I’ve got four kids, and none of them watches TV anymore, they’re all online — and you have to stand out because it’s a very competitive environment. We developed an SEO [search engine optimization] strategy for a practice in Morristown and they were very pleased with the increase in patient activity.”
The biggest fences are the ones set up by federal HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations, Hofstetter said. “For example, you can’t market to patients based on your knowledge of their illness. So, if you know someone has a knee problem, you can’t target market to them.”
So that rules out ambulance chasers. But, “I may be able to send you a newsletter with educational material about knees,” said Hofstetter. “Is that marketing or education?”
His firm has been creative when it comes to assisting clients. “We had a practice that wanted more spine patients,” said Hofstetter. “On the theory that people with spine problems are more likely to buy a new bed, we procured a list of people who were shopping for a new mattress and marketed to them. Because we didn’t know anything specific about their conditions, this was fine, and our client got a lot of new business from the campaign.”
Another client wanted to push its hair-replacement services. “So, we target marketed to males over the age of 45 who bought Rogaine and similar products,” said Hofstetter. “That was also a success. Doctors need to recognize that these kinds of efforts are a marathon, not a sprint. We’ll tailor a strategy to fit their budget, but they have to commit to a long-term strategy. One full-page ad won’t do it anymore.”
Deniza Gertsberg counsels doctors on their marketing activity — but as a lawyer she focuses on the legal angle. “The board of medical examiners and other professional boards, like those regulating dentists and chiropractors, have rigorous requirements for what is and what is not allowed in advertising,” she said. “In each and every instance, applicable statutes and regulations have to be reviewed before moving forward with an advertising plan.”
Most of the practitioner advertising questions she gets center on the Internet. “At a minimum, most of my clients have a website” although even that can create issues, Gertsberg said. “Some health care professionals are hiring ‘marketing’ or similar types of technology companies that not only promise to build them a website but also continuously make the health care providers ‘known’ or ‘visible’ on social media platforms; and hence, supposedly increase patient awareness and therefore business to the health care professional.”
These companies may write blog posts for the health care professionals and post them on social media platforms. “But aside from contractual issues that health care providers may come up against if they don’t review and negotiate the contract prior to signing, caution should be taken with blog posts written by someone unfamiliar with health care professionals’ federal and state law advertisement regulations and limitations,” she said. “In one case, the blog posts that I reviewed for a health care professional would flat-out violate the Board of Medical Examiners’ rules.”
In each and every instance, applicable statutes and regulations have to be reviewed before moving forward with an advertising plan.
A health care professional who relies on a marketer’s advice and gets tripped up could expose themselves to potential board action, she said. “Ultimately, it is the health care professional who is responsible. In my case, we were able to correct the blog posts before any board action. Obviously, this is not the case for all marketing or technology companies but that was the case for my client, and this is an issue that providers need to be aware of.”
Health care practitioners should also be aware of the federal anti-kickback law, Gertsberg said. She noted it “is a very broad statute that has, among others, criminal and civil penalties, as well as provider exclusion from the Medicare program, which will have collateral consequences for those providers enrolled in states’ Medicaid programs.”
In 2012, she said, “the Office of Inspector General noted in an advisory opinion that advertisement is intended to induce the use of an item or service” and could trigger the anti-kickback statute if a federally funded program is involved.
“Also, Medicare regulations have some specific advertisement requirements for certain providers of health services, like durable medical equipment firms, which provide medical or surgical supplies,” she said.
Doctors go through comprehensive training before they can practice their craft. But when they try to get the word out about themselves, they may find it’s a whole new learning experience.