Category Archives: Medical Marketing

Strategies and insight on marketing your health care organization or medical practice.

When Experience Turns Into Complacency, Watch Out

A few days ago I was traveling with my family, en route to South America. Having logged over 2 million miles (I am “Platinum for life” on American Airlines), I know my way around airports as much as George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham in the movie, “Up In the Air.”

Knowing that our gate was only a few feet from the Grand Hyatt at DFW where we were staying, I told my wife and kids to take their time. The trouble was, when we finally made it to security, we discovered the entrance was closed (it was 5 am). By the time we finally found an open security entrance and made into the terminal, the departure gate had changed to the opposite side of DFW.

My wife and two school-aged daughters kept up valiantly as I led the way, vaulting up the escalator to the train, then dashing through the airport until we arrived in our seats with only a couple of minutes to spare.

So, because of my vast experience and assumptions about what to expect, we almost missed our flight.

Of course, sometimes complacency leads to far more severe consequences. The Titanic’s Captain Edward John Smith is said to have ignored warnings about icebergs in part because he had never experienced any problems before during his 40-year + career. In the book, “The Checklist Manifesto,” Dr. Atul Gawande recounts many examples of disasters and near disasters in the operating room due to stupid, avoidable mistakes.

What does all this have to do with healthcare marketing?

A lot.

We meet new healthcare clients all the time who are very confident because their business, hospital or practice is doing “fine.” The trouble is, once we look a little deeper, at least half of them turn out to be wrong.

For example, almost every day we get a call from a hospital, group or practice that has been taking its referring doctor base for granted, but now is suffering from defections due to new competitors, mergers and/or alliances.

Worse, big problems like those are typically very difficult to fix after the fact.

So today, stop and take a few minutes to identify where YOU might be overly complacent because of your past successes.

Are you taking care of doctors who refer to you? Are your new patient counts going in the right direction? Are you wasting significant portions of your marketing budget? Are serious new competitors emerging? Are you vulnerable to broader changes in healthcare reimbursement?

By doing some homework and being proactive rather than reactive, you have a much greater chance of ongoing success, now and in the future.

Billionaire’s Advice: Take Perceived Risks – Not Actual Risks

I saw billionaire Wilbur Ross, Jr. on Charlie Rose tonight, and something he said struck me like a thunder bolt. He talked about how his holding company bought bankrupt Cleveland steelmaker LTV for cents on a dollar, and later sold it for billions in profits.

He shared his secrets during the interview:

“We’re in the business not so much of being contrarians, deliberately, but rather we’d like to take perceived risks instead of actual risks. And what I mean by that is that you get paid for taking the risk that people think is risky. You don’t particularly get paid for taking actual risks… We basically spent $90 million for assets on which LTV had spent $2.5 billion in the prior 5 years. And our assessment of the values was that if worse came to worse we could knock it down and sell it to the Chinese. Then we also bought accounts receivable and inventory for 50 cents on the dollar. So between the combination of things, we frankly felt we had no risk…The joke was right when everybody was saying  this was too risky,  it will never work, the big debate within our shop was should we just liquidate it and take the profit, or should we try to start it up. That’s how sure we were that we weren’t actually taking risk.”

What does this have to do with marketing success? Well, too often people assume that successful people take big risks. Actually, more often they do everything they can to mitigate unnecessary risk. Then, once they have done everything they can to cut their risks, they are willing to step up to the plate and try.

That is why direct response marketing principles appeal so much to me. Start with an honest assessment, learn from the experience of others before you, invest a limited amount, test, track and adjust, and then roll out if your marketing hypothesis turns out to be correct. If you guessed wrong, cut your losses, regroup, and try something else. Eventually, you’ll find a formula for success.

I remember being in Las Vegas with a now deceased friend of mine who was a high stakes poker player and businessman. He put down $15,000 to open in blackjack, while I put down $250. He had money to burn so for him it was fun.

However, for me, I told him that while I am happy to invest thousands on a marketing idea that can work, I can’t do it while gambling. The difference is that even if he had a good night, the next night he would still have to start at zero.

On the other hand, once I invest in a marketing strategy, it will either work or not. If not, I stop right away. But if it does work, it will bear fruit oftentimes for years, sometimes for decades.

So as you think about marketing, remember to follow the principles of learning from the experience of others before you, invest a little after you have done everything you can to mitigate risks, then “double down” if successful.

So let the other guy either freeze out of fear about marketing or blow it all in risky endeavors.

Your goal will be to take risks that are either zero or limited – and capitalize big time when your assumptions turn out to be right.

The Mayo Clinic: A Social Media Powerhouse

Few providers worldwide enjoy the stellar reputation that Mayo Clinic has established.

What’s more, Mayo is plenty busy, and it certainly doesn’t NEED patients.

Therefore, you’d probably expect Mayo to be extremely conservative in its approach to marketing and publicity, especially with regards to high risk social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs.

Well, you’d be wrong. Wayyyyy wrong.

It turns out that Mayo Clinic has caught the social media bug in a big way.

Mayo Clinic Facebook Page
Mayo Clinic Facebook Page

First, there’s a Mayo Clinic Facebook Page with over 13,000 fans. Mayo uses this page as a venue to distribute content and it also gives patients and the public and patients a forum to talk about Mayo.

“Yikes, what if a patient or detractor says something that we don’t like – or is even untrue?”

I just scrolled through Mayo’s Facebook page and today, at least, was a very good day. Patient comments were almost universally positive. Given that this is the Mayo Clinic, I bet most days are very good days.

Next, there’s a  Mayo Clinic YouTube Channel, which is all about patient education. Its description says,”The Mayo Clinic Channel is a place to see what makes Mayo Clinic special, and to watch videos about Mayo’s latest research and treatment advances.

It contains more than 600 videos that have been viewed 1.5 million times. The content is mostly professionally produced patient education, but also includes patient testimonials.

Then there are a number of Mayo Clinic blogs and Podcasts designed for consumers, researchers and physicians.

Finally you, along with 24,000 of your closest friends, can follow the Mayo Clinic on Twitter.

So what does this all mean?

Here are some thoughts.

1. It’s gutsy. After all, Mayo Clinic’s brand is worth A LOT, and the good people at Mayo therefore have a lot to lose if things were to go wrong. But they obviously are confident in their product and reputation, and therefore are not overly concerned that consumers can post negative comments on their Facebook Page or YouTube Channel.

2. It’s realistic. It’s a free country, and patients and the public can comment about Mayo Clinic on Twitter and dozens of other social media channels whether or not Mayo participates. At least this way, Mayo has a strong voice in the conversation.

3. It’s brand building. Mayo Clinic demonstrates its commitment to being leading edge in all things it does by vigorously engaging social media.

4. It sells. I couldn’t help but notice that there is a call to action “To request an appointment…” on the top of the Facebook page.

Still, unlike many marketers I do not think social media is a requirement for EVERYONE.

My partner and I have worked with thousands of healthcare clients over the years, and I can tell you with certainty that many just don’t have the courage, culture, resources, commitment and/or consistency of outcomes to participate.

Still, the misguided arguments against marketing that I have heard ad naseum over the years like “they have to market because they aren’t good providers … or they must really NEED patients” obviously don’t apply in this case.

So if you’ve got what it takes, there are people out there who can help you embrace social media (including my  firm).

Of course, you don’t need to have the resources that Mayo Clinic enjoys, but if you are engaging in social media only because you think it is free, I highly recommend you stop and reconsider the logic in your reasoning.

Also, if you ARE dying for patients, social media is usually not your best first step. It isn’t direct enough to generate lots of patients quickly.

In any event, social media can be a wild ride, but it is often one worth taking.

At least, that’s what the Mayo Clinic seems to think.

For Part 2 of this story, click: Mayo Clinic Interview Reveals Secrets to Social Media Success


Are Doctors Duty-Bound to Embrace Social Media?

I came across an intriguing blog post today entitled, “Are Physicians Obligated to Participate in Social Media?”

Now to be honest, my gut reaction was, “Oh great, another run-of-the-mill marketer thinks social media is for EVERYONE. Probably looking to drum up business from doctors. I wonder if he has ever MET any doctors.”

Thankfully I was wrong. This excellent blog post was written by a doctor and author, not a marketer (Bryan Vartabedian, MD), but more importantly contains a truly unique point of view.

But before I reveal Vartabedian’s insight, let’s set the context.

To say that doctors are incredibly busy and skeptical about social media is an understatement. Aside from wanting to spend their limited spend spare time in other ways (perhaps with their families?), they worry about liability risks, becoming too “chummy” with patients, psycho followers and more.

Meanwhile, marketers often become so enamored with social media that it becomes almost a religion for them.

The trouble is, health care social media is a more complex issue than either, “everyone should do it” or “stay away.”

Essentially, Dr. Vartabedian argues that there is a ton of misinformation out there, and doctors should band together to get the truth out via social media.

He cites the public’s fear of a link between vaccinations and autism. Both scientists and doctors argue that this theory has been scientifically discredited time and again, yet a significant portion (25%) of the public remains steadfastly convinced that vaccinations cause autism. Therefore, parents often avoid vaccinations and their kids subsequently wind up getting very real – and preventable – childhood diseases.

In the real world, a few loud voices tend to get all of the attention, even when they are wrong. Scientists of all kinds tend not to be good at promoting, so the voice of reason often becomes lost in a fray of competing (loud and misinformed) voices.

If thousands of doctors were to tweet, blog and post on facebook about medical issues, voices of reason would begin to show up a lot more on Google. Therefore, patients would become better informed and make better choices.

Alas, I don’t see that happening any time soon en masse. There are just too many barriers for most doctors to pick up the social media torch.

Still, change begins with a determined few.

My net takeaway:  Aside from a being a good way to grow your reputation, hospital or practice, social media can also be used as a tool to better inform the public, particularly about those issues where good information is either lacking or simply overwhelmed by misinformation.

Use Video To Build Relationships With Referring Doctors – Cheap

I saw an article today about a hospital in Akron, OH, that does video webcasts. http://www.medcitynews.com/index.php/2009/12/interactive-media-helps-akron-childrens-hospital-get-out-the-message/

I expect to see more of efforts like these, because they are great exposure for hospitals.

However, there may be an even bigger benefit that no one is talking about yet – video webcasts are be a great, low cost way to build relationships with referring doctors.

After all, you can make your doctors a “star for the day,” and the experience is sure to make their dinner conversation at home.

The costs for informal webcasts can be minimal, though there will be time and effort involved.

Once you’ve conducted the interview, you could also provide the video to the doctors for use on their own site.

We’ll be doing these kinds of things for our clients in the near future.

Anyway, it is a cool idea.

Speed dating pairs doctors and patients

(Note: This post was updated on the evening of Feb 22.)

Saw an intriguing article from the AMA recently about a Texas Hospital who started a speed dating service between docs and patients.

I was so surprised they were able to get the doctors to go along with the idea (it must have felt unseemly to many of them), that I called Mandy Forbus, senior marketing specialist for Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford, to interview her.

In a nutshell, she came up with the idea because she feels (and I agree) that it is hard for patients to choose a compatible doctor.

They started by targeting women looking for OB/GYNs, as obviously women make most of the healthcare decisions for the family.

I asked Forbus about getting doctor buy in, and as you’d expect, most of the early participants were either new or younger.

It did surprise me however, that women doctors opted in first, because male ob/gyns tend to have a harder time getting patients than females (duh). Now that the program has proven successful, however, male doctors are joining the fray (probably don’t want to be left out on a good thing).

The speed dating sessions are open to all admitting doctors, and when relevant, staff doctors.

Patients spend about a half hour in multiple five minute meetings, while doctors do two shifts culminating in about an hour of their time. Most doctors get 1-2 patients from the effort, and some even get referrals from the effort to boot.

Forbus and her colleagues have done four of these speed dating meetings so far (they call them DocShops), and are going to do one for pediatrics in March. These meetings have grown in size, and she feels a good mix is about 10 doctors for 24 patients.

Texas Health has promoted these meetings in a lot of ways, including mailers, publicity, emails, etc.  Interested would-be patients are required to preregister with a call center.

According to Forbus, response has been overwhelmingly positive, admitting doctors are happy and the hospital is building its reputation with patients. What’s more, this effort is consistent with the positioning and brand the hospital is trying to build.

This speed dating could catch on, though by now some of my doctor readers have no doubt thrown up on their computer.

Some doctors will NEVER EVER try this.

Still, the rationale behind the idea has merit. When people choose a primary care doctor, they are often looking for a  long term relationship. Credentials are assumed, and people are more interested in philosophy of care, personality, how the office treats them, etc.

Great idea, Mandy.

Social media empowers consumers – including your patients

At the end of the movie Terminator, a Mexican boy says, “Viene la tormenta.”

Sarah Connor asks the gas station attendant what he means, and he explains, “There’s a storm coming.”

The fact that patients can leave comments about their doctors or health care organizations on rating sites has been talked about to death, and I’ve been interviewed on the topic on a couple of occasions.

My take: the genie is out of the bottle, and while there are all kinds of legal and ethical issues to consider (how do you know that an anonymous bad rating wasn’t made by a jealous competitor), social media is empowering consumers – and your patients – more every day.

While providers like to think of themselves as a privileged class, Google doesn’t see it that way. In fact, Google and other search engines LOVE ratings and social media when they display search engine results pages (SERPs).

Consumers are now empowered, and some are getting aggressive. The best anecdote I’ve heard about involves a country singer whose guitar was broken by baggage handlers working for United Airlines. When United refused to pay for repairs, he created a very funny video, United Breaks Guitars, on YouTube.  Upon seeing the video, United came around and offered to pay him after all, but by then the damage was done. He suggested they give the money to charity. Worse, this was only his first video on the topic, and as of today it has had more than 7,600,000 viewers. Ouch.

Jeremiah Owyang recently wrote that companies should give priority attention to highly visible web savvy customers. He cites a woman who had a million Twitter followers and warned Maytag to solve her maintenance dispute. When they failed to do so, she asked her followers to boycott the company.

Owyang admits that such consumers can use their new-found power irresponsibly, but how do you stop them once they have such a large podium? Besides, who will be the referee to determine which actions are “power of the people” and which are exploitation?

What really struck me about Owyang’s article, however, was that he reminded us that companies give preferential treatment to celebrities all the time, so we shouldn’t feel bad about recognizing social media leaders.

I have always found it a little annoying that celebrities, who already have everything, get the best gifts and treatment from us all. Still, this phenomenon goes back to at least Biblical times, so it isn’t going to change anytime soon.

So even if you hate the idea of newly empowered patients having a voice, you aren’t going to change it.

Some are trying to litigate this problem away, but frankly, I think that is naive. Our country was founded on “free press,” and “free speech,” and providers aren’t going to get a special pass. (United Airlines didn’t get one…)  Besides, the Groundswell is too big.

So what should healthcare marketers, providers, pharmaceuticals and manufacturers do?

Well, if you have the time and budget, getting into the conversation may be a great idea.

That’s what Johnson and Johnson did with their JNJ Health Channel on YouTube. After all, consumers are going to talk about you whether you like it or not.

However, joining in on the fray may be hard for you to do. If you work in a small organization, you may not have access to the talent, time or budget required. If you are with a large organization, there will be legal and internal issues to deal with. (Rob Harper explains Johnson and Johnson’s experience here.)

I recommend you give your own situation some careful analysis and planning. Don’t just rush in to do it like the rest of the herd – come up with objectives and decide how it fits into your larger strategy.

But one thing is for sure. It is fun to be working in marketing during this revolutionary time period.

Medical Marketing “On The Cheap” Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

I am as frugal as the next guy, but in competitive markets, doing things on the cheap is not only ill advised, it can be downright dangerous.

A doctor called us the other day, saying that he wants to expand into a new line of business, despite entrenched competition.  Now this a really nice guy who enjoys a good reputation, but he has never had to deal with ANY competition before.  Since things have always been easy for him, he assumes that it will be a “walk in the park” to get referrals for his new business from area doctors.

That’s a big assumption. If he is right, great, but if not, the consequences could be dire.

It seems our doctor spent a lot of money getting his new center up and running. So much so in fact, that he has no money left over to market his new business. I explained that is like buying an expensive racehorse, but then being unable or unwilling to feed it.

His plan is to send an employee (who has never sold anything in her life) out into the market to win doctor referrals, using some “home-grown” marketing brochures and a website.

To prevent a potential debacle, I introduced him to one of the professional physician liaisons work with.  Also known as physician relations, business development, practice reps, etc., physician liaisons are on-the-ground experts at generating referrals from doctors.

This particular liaison shared some interesting insights, based upon his experience personally walking into hundreds of doctors offices.

1. Referring doctors are used to seeing state-of-the-art marketing materials from pharmaceuticals, manufacturers, hospitals and competing groups. Home grown marketing materials always look amateurish. You wouldn’t think that would matter, but it does.

2. If his employee has a talent for sales (we don’t know that yet), she may be successful. However, if she doesn’t have any talent, she will fail. And even if she does have talent, her going out into the market without being appropriately trained, managed and compensated will probably result in failure as well.

3. This is a rural area, so if his new business gets started on the wrong foot, it may never recover. In small towns, good reputations take forever to build, but long-lasting bad ones can be created in an instant.

4. Given the big money at stake, the existing competitors will probably not take this encroachment on their turf lightly. Therefore, the level of competition is sure to increase, and an “arms race” may well ensue. Our doctor needs to be ready for a much more aggressive situation than the one he is walking into.

This doctor is a good guy, but he will greatly improve his odds of success if he finds the money to 1. train his rep, 2. get some decent marketing materials, and then 3. market appropriately.

In any event, I urge you to avoid painting yourself into a similar corner.

Whenever you start or own a business, your business plan needs to account for marketing too, not just the lease, build-out and employees. And, be ready for  competition that turns out to be much stronger than you would hope for.

I recommend you look at your marketing dollars as an insurance policy to mitigate the risk of a painful misstep.

After all, a financial fall will leave you badly bruised for a long time.

Have Providers Finally Given Up Passively Waiting For Recovery?

I am a partner in a medical advertising agency, and something very intriguing has happened for us during the first two weeks of this year….

Our inquiry rate from doctors, hospitals, manufacturers and other potential health care clients has tripled over what we are used to.

Now, we expect a small bump due to New Years resolutions, and we’ve also made a few tweaks to our marketing efforts.

But I think the real cause of this explosion of interest is that doctors and health care organizations have finally given up on passively waiting for the recession to end.

For two years, I have exhorted readers, audiences and prospective clients to continue marketing despite the recession. Now, apparently, at least some people are fed up with waiting.

I want to make an important distinction here.

I didn’t say that our prospective clients are excited about the recovery we are alleged to be in the middle of. In fact, quite the opposite.

Out of the dozens of inquiries my partner and I have been fielding lately, not one person has mentioned any evidence of a recovery in his or her business. (I wrote in recent post about how I often get laughter from doctors and healthcare professionals whenever I mention our “recovery.”)

Which by the way, don’t even get me started. On January 14, CNBC reported that, “Retail sales unexpectedly fell in December, leaving 2009 with the biggest yearly drop on record.” What’s more, the same article reported unemployment was up. Again.

Yet the stock market that same day saw gains. Clearly there is a disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street. (Note: the economists I follow say it will take years before we see good economic times again.)

In any event, true to American spirit, at least some people appear to be dusting themselves off and taking matters into their own hands. They realize that hope is not a strategy, and waiting for things to get better could take a really long time.

Springsteen on AARP Cover. Marketing to Boomers Now.

I have been advising clients about the aging baby boom generation for years, but most thought it was something to consider for the future.

But, seeing Bruce Springsteen on the cover of AARP magazine should be a wake up call to all who want to attract Baby Boomers. “The times they are a changing.”

So what should we expect now?

1. Boomers will be far hipper than their parents were. Take a look at that cover. Unlike most aging celebrities of old, the Boss looks pretty darn cool. I hope I look as good when I am 60. No pulled up pants around the armpits for Boomers. They are more fashion conscious and will NOT grow old gracefully. They will fight every step of the way.

2. Due to their sheer numbers, Baby Boomers will continue to be wooed by marketers. Right now most of the advertising is driven by financial services firms but look for a boom in personal care, cosmetics and healthcare, luxury items, et al.

3. Speaking of medical marketing for my clients, seniors of course drive a disproportionate amount of healthcare dollars. At the same time, doctors and hospitals are becoming more aggressive in marketing. So look for competitive advertising to increase at an increasing pace.

4. Celebrity “heroes” who look good will enjoy great endorsement deals. Keep it up Bruce, the really big money may be yet to come.

So, 60 is the new 40, right? Hang on.

By the way, I was born in 1960, so I am really not a true Baby Boomer. I didn’t grow with Howdy Doody and come of age with Bob Dylan. I grew up with Scooby Doo and came of age with Aerosmith.  (Marketing purists would accurately refer to me as a member of Generation Jones http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_Jones).

But what used to be so far away is now in sight in the distance. Ick.