February 1, 2023
In the hundreds of decisions that doctors make when opening a new practice, marketing is rarely near the top of the list. But often, it should be. With many startup practices requiring large investments and many practitioners taking on debt, a concrete plan to attract patients—and revenue—is vital to a successful launch.
“For certain types of practitioners, it absolutely should be at the top of the list,” said Daniel Weinbach, president and CEO of The Weinbach Group, a Miami-based medical marketing firm with more than 30 years of experience. “If the services you provide are what we call ‘shoppable,’ you need to consider marketing as an important part of your business.”
Modern practices require a marketing plan that goes beyond physician referral, though what that plan includes can vary widely. While all practices will need a high-quality website and a basic digital presence, the plan may include digital advertising, webinars and video, medical screenings and seminars, television and radio ads or a program of community involvement.
Marketing experts say that most of these strategies work, with the right application. The question is which will work best for you and the practice you are creating. The items that belong in your plan will depend on the nature of your practice, the type of patients you want to see, your marketing budget—and even your personality.
“The analogy that I always use is the architect designing a new building,” said Paul Fahey, vice president of Smith and Jones, a medical marketing firm. “Tons of attention is paid to the finishes and the signage is always an afterthought. I feel like most doctors are under-budgeted and under-resourced when it comes to actually launching their practice.”
Location and insurance networks play a major role in how people select healthcare, but they are not the only factors. “At the end of the day, you're very much a service-based organization,” Fahey said. “You've got to appeal to patients like consumers.”
The days when physician advertising was greeted with skepticism are long gone. Today, consumers encounter a blizzard of medical information and have the resources to do serious healthcare research. The result is that many practices will be dealing with an informed consumer.
Yet there are also generational differences in how people approach healthcare. For example, members of the Silent Generation may rely almost entirely on doctors for referrals and medical information. Millennial and Gen Z patients are more likely to do research, lookup reviews and consult multiple sources before making decisions.
Marketing experts say knowing who your ideal patient is, including their age, income, insurance profile, and how they may shop for healthcare, will guide your marketing plan. Marketers in other industries often refer to this as a “persona,” meaning a profile of your ideal customer, and there can be more than one. If you know your ideal patient(s) and how they are likely to approach healthcare decisions, then you can find the right channels to talk to them and—importantly—the messaging that will resonate.
“Most people don't wake up in the morning and say, ‘I can't wait to access healthcare services today,’” Weinbach said. “It is not something that people want, generally speaking, unless you're talking about elective procedures. When it comes to healthcare, people are usually trying to eliminate something that is causing them discomfort or pain, so the messaging needs to speak to that.”
Marketing experts also make another observation: quality is often assumed in the medical world. “We have this inherent bias towards physicians,” Weinbach said. “We believe that a physician, by virtue of their degree, is qualified. We rarely question doctors’ credentials or contemplate the fact that some are better than others.”
The idea has a major impact on marketing. For starters, Weinbach says, physicians need to ensure that they don’t violate that trust with inconsistent branding, inflated claims, an over-emphasis on pricing or other missteps. It also means that doctors setting up a practice often need to differentiate themselves in ways that go beyond credentials. For example, if there are a dozen dermatologists operating in a community, acquiring patients will require explaining in clear terms why your practice is the right choice.
Differentiators can vary widely. It may be that you offer services that are not available elsewhere; that you focus on women or another specific community; that your office is fluent in a language spoken widely in your area, such as Spanish or Vietnamese; or that you offer digital conveniences, such as online scheduling. It could also simply be you.
“We go through a pretty exhaustive discovery process with clients—it's almost like a therapy session—in which we ask probing questions to better understand who they are, how they want to be perceived and what makes them different,” Weinbach said. “Using that information, we put together something we call a positioning statement. It can be compared to a profile on a dating website, because it's not about what you do, it's about who you are.”
Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, who runs Pacific Heights Plastic Surgery in San Francisco, found his differentiator when he moved to the Bay Area and bought his practice almost a decade ago. Kaplan advertised on a local television station with interview-style segments that established him as an expert, but he needed something to drive people to his website. He decided to stand out by making his pricing public.
“Everybody is interested in pricing, yet doctors never want to talk about how much things cost,” he said. “So it was really the perfect call to action.”
In recent years, price transparency has become a major debate in private medicine—and something most new practices will have to consider—but Kaplan was well ahead of the market. He didn’t just put a price list on the website. Instead, he had an online pricing estimator built, including a “wishlist” function, and then required patients to provide contact information in order to use it.
This allowed him to create a list of prospects for email marketing, which eventually ran to thousands of people. It also screened out patients who were not serious and allowed him to run his office more efficiently. “If patients know the price ahead of time, they're more likely to move from the exam room to the operating room because the consultation didn’t end in sticker shock.”
Kaplan did another smart thing: he tracked the efficacy of his tool. This allowed him to see how many prospects book office visits and procedures. In the first year, according to a case study he co-authored in the Annals of Plastic Surgery, almost 18% of those who created a wishlist booked a consultation, and about 62% of those booked a procedure. Overall, price-aware patients were 41% more likely to book a procedure than those who were not aware of pricing. Kaplan now markets the tool to other doctors through his company, Build My Health.
While many practices have had success advertising on traditional venues like local television and drive-time radio, modern marketing is primarily digital. A successful marketing plan will build a digital presence for your practice that is designed to attract patients. That consists of a professional website and a series of organic and paid initiatives designed to drive would-be patients to the site. These might include:
Ultimately, the right mix of digital channels will be different for every practice, and experts caution against an “all of the above” approach, which can spread a young practice thin without delivering an effective return on investment. A better strategy is to focus on one or two key areas, watch the analytics and then follow the data. You are looking for channels that reliably provide patients. When you find those channels, you can scale them and then look for more.
Every marketing program will involve some content. The pages on your website, for example, will explain your services. But content can also be a powerful marketing tool, attracting inbound prospects with material that helps them understand medical problems, the range of solutions, how procedures work, what to expect in recovery and other helpful information.
This type of content marketing is all around us. Think back to the last time you bought a car. If you read reviews or comparisons between vehicles, those were very likely content marketing pieces. Julia Spence, a specialist in digital healthcare marketing at Prosperity SEO in Texas, says that short videos, webinars and podcasts help introduce physicians to the community in ways that other mediums cannot.
“As a doctor, you need to be the one driving that show, finding what is of value to customers and creating valuable content,” she said. “When you are connecting with your audience, your personality is going to emerge through the content you generate.”
Indeed, like social media, this is another area where personality matters. Not every doctor is comfortable on camera. But Spence says a little can go a long way. A live question-and-answer session on a platform like Facebook, for example, is a good way to engage a local audience. “Who doesn't love an opportunity to get to talk one-on-one with a doctor?” she said. “People love the chance to get some free medical advice.”
That Q&A can then be transcribed to create a blog post, and that post can be broken into smaller items for social media. “People love to connect with people,” Spence said. “When you are making important health care decisions, you want to connect with someone you feel really comfortable with and get to know that person a little bit better. So creating content and being present on different channels, I think, is the best advertising you can do.”
One strategy that gets broad endorsement is community involvement, meaning attending hospital events, civic meetings, volunteer opportunities, philanthropic events and other gatherings where a physician with a new practice might meet people in the community.
“If a doctor is known to be involved in a certain community, whether it's a church or a school or some kind of sporting community, they are more likely to get the first call for opportunities,” said Daniel Brian Cobb, owner of the Daniel Brian Agency.
Just as doctors might attend a meeting of the Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce or a local women’s organization, they can also invite people to attend an event they hold, such as a seminar or a webinar. Cobb says that free medical screenings can be particularly effective.
The strategy can work in many different settings. Dr. Aman Dhaliwal, for example, began attending community events months before she opened her physical therapy practice in Tracy, California, a town of roughly 90,000 people about an hour from Sacramento. She would speak at yoga studios, CrossFit clinics and local businesses—even the farmers market. Her strategy was to simply answer questions and collect email addresses. When she opened her practice, it paid off.
“They were waiting for me to open,” she said. “I started seeing patients at my clinic Day One.”
Later, she held seminars and asked patients to bring friends and family. She also allowed personal trainers, massage therapists and others to teach in her clinic. Their clients often became her clients as well.
“To put this in the most essential marketing terms, you want to put the customer in the store—and if you have to bring the store to the customer, do it that way,” Weinbach said. “When they go for a screening, they have become emotionally and psychologically connected to the provider in some way, and it's going to be that much easier to get them to become a patient.”
Entire books can and have been written about marketing a medical practice, and it is easy to get overwhelmed when creating a marketing plan. What is important to remember is that you don’t have to be a marketing expert. Your mission is to consistently fill your waiting room.
Many experts recommend working with a medical marketing firm, which can help you establish a differentiated brand, create messaging that resonates and curate the mix of marketing channels that is most likely to produce results. That firm will also have expertise in digital advertising, paid social media and other areas that require specialized skills.
The key is to retain a company that focuses on healthcare marketing and offers a full range of integrated services. It need not be a large firm, but it should have solid experience in all of the tools you want to explore. Asking a development shop that creates websites to manage your digital advertising program is not likely to go well. Interview several firms and choose one that fits your style and budget.
Of course, plenty of doctors will be very involved in their own marketing, especially in the beginning, and then turn to a firm when the time is right. As Spence put it, “agencies can help you really target those dollars—and your time.”