3 Reasons Your Medical Practice Needs to Communicate More Effectively

Traditionally, doctors have found new patients one of three primary ways: referrals from other doctors, patient word of mouth, or being part of an insurance provider’s network directory.

You need to keep patients walking through your doors, but this traditional referral model is increasingly getting turned on its head. The Affordable Care Act, new regulations, and the rise of technology are rapidly reshaping the health-care landscape. Independent physicians and group practices that are unable to adapt will find that they have been left behind.

Before you can treat a condition, you need to understand what’s causing it. There are three major forces making it increasingly important for medical practices and doctor groups to communicate effectively with people who could become patients.

1. The rise of high-deductible plans is causing patients to act more like consumers

Since 2010, health care deductibles have risen by a whopping 67 percent, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

When insurance companies were footing the bill, patients were more inclined to go to the most convenient provider. However, as they have to bear the brunt of costs for day-to-day care, patients have more “skin in the game” and an incentive to act more like consumers, exploring their options in-depth and seeking out better value.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, the Affordable Care Act has turned patients into customers -- and customers shop. So the question becomes, what exactly are they looking for?

According to Tom Main, partner at Oliver Wyman and founder of the Oliver Wyman Health and Innovation Center, “The answers are as unique as the individuals. For some consumers it is finding the best-fit physician and care team to help with their chronic disease, for others it is decluttering the medicine cabinet or helping with affordability. Overall the sick care market is fragmented and opaque and benefit plans and networks are complicated and hard to navigate. Consumers want their healthcare to be accessible, easy and more on their terms.”

In other words, people seem to be looking for value.

This may seem like a pretty ambiguous term, but it makes sense when you think about it from a consumer’s standpoint. What are you looking for when you go shopping for company that provides a service, like a tree-removal service or a plumber?

Is it business hours? Location? A referral from a friend or coworker?

Perhaps, but it’s more than that. You’re probably looking for a company that’s easy to get in touch with, provides good customer service, is recommended by previous customers, offers a fair price and, most importantly, gets the job done well at a fair price. That’s value.

Picking a landscaping company to remove a tree is certainly different than choosing a physician to remove a tumor, but the underlying desire for value remains the same. As a physician in the wide world of health care, your practice needs to market itself in a way that proves to patients that it’s the best and will provide them with the value they’re seeking.

2. The trend towards specialization means you need to set yourself apart

The one-doctor-can-fix-all mentality is fading away as practices that focus on treating specific issues with advanced technology steadily grow. Studies show that referrals to specialized physicians have risen from 5 percent to over 9 percent in the last decade.

While this increased desire for specialists can be good for your practice, it also means that you and every other doctor in your specialty and market will be fighting tooth and nail for the same patients.

How are you setting yourself apart?

If you’re an ophthalmologist, for example, patients want to know why they should choose your practice over the one down the street to treat their macular degeneration or their child’s lazy eye. Who offers better customer service, better doctors, better results, better value? We already know that most consumers turn to the web for the answers to these questions so, really, you should be asking yourself, will you be there to greet them?

Simply put: if you’re not communicating with potential patients in an effective way, you’re going to get left behind.

3. More and more patients are researching online when making decisions about their health care

As deductibles have risen and patients have grown more studious about where they’re spending their money, many have moved online to do research and to find a practice that fits their specific needs. The world of social media and the democratization of information channels are enabling people to make more informed choices about where, and from whom, they get their care.

One recent study discovered that 84 percent of consumers trust online reviews – on sites such as Google, HealthGrades, Vitals and RateMDs – as much as personal recommendations, and 40 percent reported physician rating sites are “very important” when choosing a doctor.

This means that the majority of your potential patients trust the reviews they read online just as much as their family and friends. Do you know what your reviews are saying about you?

According to one study, 33 percent of consumers will only take the time to write a review on their own if they believe the service was exceptionally good or exceptionally bad; and a single bad review, whether accurate or not, can be detrimental to your practice. According to Moz Local, just one negative article is enough to drive away 22 percent of potential customers.

While this may seem dramatic, just put yourself in your customer’s shoes again for a minute. If you were looking for a new pair of shoes on Amazon, you’re probably more likely to purchase the ones with better reviews. Why should health care be any different?

Say you were researching a physician and came across these two reviews. Which would you be more likely to contact?

“Fueled by the trends of healthcare consumerism and transparency, consumers have demonstrated an unprecedented interest in patient reviews,” says Andrea Pearson, chief marketing officer, at HealthGrades. “Visitors use these reviews, along with other criteria such a physician’s experience and the quality of the affiliated hospital, to find the right provider and hospital for their care.

For the more than one million consumers who visit HealthGrades on a daily basis, reviews can influence whether or not they make an appointment with a provider. That means it’s critical for providers to actively participate in these online conversations, as they can leave a lasting impression with consumers and referring physicians.”

Reviews are certainly important, but they’re only one piece within the complicated puzzle of health-care marketing. These days, how you appear, or don’t appear, on the rest of the web can have a significant impact on your patient flow and acquisition.

72 percent of Internet users looked online for health information within the past year, and 77 percent of them began their search at a general search engine, like Google, rather than a health-specific site, reports the Pew Research Center.

Here’s a quick litmus test for you to try: Go to Google and search for your name. Where do you appear? What does it look like?

Now try the name of your practice. Do you show up?

Finally, type in a generic term that a potential patient who doesn’t know about you would look for, like “spine surgeon los angeles”. Where are you on the search results? The first page? The second? The third?

Truthfully, if you’re not ranking on the first page in any of these results, you’re falling through the cracks. Studies have shown that approximately 90 percent of Google users don’t navigate past the first page of results.

What Can You Do?

So what can you do if you’re not showing up online or ranking as high as you want to be? The answer is simple: it’s time for you to develop a strategic communications strategy. Much more than health-care marketing, strategic communications can leave a lasting impact on potential patients by building a strong bond through effective storytelling.

It’s also worth noting that, while these dramatic changes to the health-care industry can spell trouble for an unprepared practice, it’s not necessarily bad news. Physicians who are willing to to take the time to develop a health care communications strategy for their practice are walking into a world of opportunity. Many doctors in your area are probably in the same boat as you, in that they haven’t built up an online presence for themselves, or at least not very well. This means that with a consistent, measured effort you’ll be able to continue building your practice.

Doctors need to have a strong, professional and engaged presence online for their patients and a focused health-care marketing strategy will set your practice apart from the crowd.

Wesley Fouse is a digital marketing specialist at Pinkston, Inc. Stay updated on all Pinkston content by following us on Twitter (@Pinkston_co).