In the age of managed care, physicians typically spend about 15 minutes with each patient and house calls are a rarity. Yet, in an effort to step up marketing, some group practices are sending physicians into the community to lecture on a variety of healthcare issues.
Martin's Point Health Care of Portland, Maine, a primary-care group practice with more than 30 physicians, recently began sponsoring physician lectures as part of a corporate wellness program. Not only does the program provide a service to the community, it also differentiates the group from others in the area, says Amy Weinschenk, director of marketing and communications for the group.
Martin's Point physicians visit companies to speak on topics ranging from healthy eating habits to alternative medicine. So far, Central Maine Power and the Maine Department of Human Services have scheduled presentations, and a dozen more companies have expressed interest.
Though the lectures are free and, therefore, don't directly bring in revenue, they often lead to inquiries that potentially could result in new business, according to Weinschenk. "The physician selection process most employers use is very passive," she says. "We'd like to put the onus back on the individual to make a choice," she says.
Weinschenk points out that most people go to a friend or neighbor to ask for a recommendation, yet when Martin's Point sends its physicians into the community, people routinely come up to them to ask if they are accepting new patients.
While physician lecture programs have existed for more than a decade, their growth in popularity is likely linked to the growing consumer demand for information and choice. "Consumerism is a trend, so providing lectures is a trend," says Kimball Herrod, senior consultant specializing in marketing issues with the Camden Group, a healthcare consulting firm based in El Segundo, Calif.
"Physicians are having to go more directly to consumers in their marketing efforts, whether through health fairs, health presentations or direct mailings."
Larger groups and specialty practices are more likely than small groups and primary-care physicians to sponsor educational lectures--only 30% of smaller medical groups offer physician lectures, according to Herrod. However, almost all medical groups with more than 100 physicians have some kind of outreach program.
"At Martin's Point, health education was built in as one of the critical aspects of the practice from the beginning," Weinschenk says. Its commitment to educating patients is evident in the health education center it houses, which offers a variety of resources and classes to patients and the community at large.
Some, such as educational publications and videos, are free. Others, such as classes, flu shots and various health tests, are offered for a nominal fee.
Classes focus on a range of topics, from how to lose weight or stop smoking to how to do yoga or manage a particular disease.
Weinschenk says the mission of the center is to encourage and enable patients to take as much responsibility as possible for their own care. For example, a person newly diagnosed with diabetes would be encouraged to attend diabetes classes at the center and to do everything possible to be well informed about the disease.
Martin's Point is one of a number of physician groups that offer resources other than lectures beyond their office walls. Physicians from Central States Orthopedic Specialists in Tulsa, Okla., analyze ergonomics and safety issues at offices, assessing the risk for such problems as repetitive motion injuries and low-back pain.
The 17-physician group also hosts luncheons for safety managers, adjusters and case managers.
"We have found (the outreach effort to be) pretty beneficial because it opens the lines of communication between companies' safety needs and the physicians," says Phylinda Moore, Central States' marketing director. "It's an added service."
Dean Medical Center, a 400-physician group based in Madison, Wis., offers physical exams for executives and on-site occupational medical treatment in addition to lectures. Though the lectures it provides are free, Dean charges for its other corporate services.
Along with corporations, a variety of community groups--from youth programs to parent-teacher associations--also are eager for physician speakers, says Sheryl Thies, vice president of marketing for Dean Medical Center.
Thies believes inviting the public to listen to physicians provides value both to the community and to the practice. "The general feeling is that (physician lectures) help attract new clients and new patients," she says. "But it's also valuable to the people who come to Dean already."
Another audience for physician lectures--particularly those given by specialists--is their peers. These lectures build personal relationships and garner possible referrals. "Communicating new technologies and new procedures shows that a physician group has invested in itself with continuing education and research,"consultant Herrod says.
The Northern Rockies Neurological Center and Foundation in Billings, Mont., an organization of neurosurgeons and neurologists, includes as part of its mission regional educational outreach. Its focus is not only the public, but also primary-care physicians and specialists, ancillary medical personnel and even third-party payers.
Rather than view its efforts as marketing, the group sees outreach as a way to improve relationships with referring physicians.
"The fundamental goal is to bring ancillary and primary-care people up to speed on neurological processes both urgent and emergent," says John Schneider, M.D., of Billings-based Yellowstone Neurological Association. Schneider is a founding member of the Northern Rockies foundation.
"I don't think physicians think of themselves as marketing themselves with a sign on the corner; it's more a means to improve the relationships we have with referring physicians. Our best marketers are the patients who are successfully treated."
Also fueling the outreach effort among physician practices is the fierce competition that exists among specialty groups such as cardiology, orthopedics, oncology and pediatrics.
"With managed care, we sometimes get more physicians in some specialties than you really need," says Andrea Eliscu, president of Medical Marketing, an Orlando, Fla.-based healthcare marketing and public relations firm. "Especially if you're competing with other large and like groups, it's important that patients understand what you have to offer in terms of subspecialties, special credentialing and services. You need to differentiate yourself."
While physician outreach might be beneficial to both doctors and patients, it isn't always a priority for physicians, particularly those whose compensation is based on productivity. Rather than standing at a podium, they may prefer to stay in their offices and see patients, pulling in more revenues. Other physicians are simply unenthusiastic.
With some physicians, "it takes a little coaxing because they are hardworking primary-care physicians," says David Howes, M.D., president and chief medical officer of Martin's Point. "However, once they go out, they enjoy it. They come back enthusiastic and game to go out and meet more employers. The recognition is that it's a nifty practice builder for them. People see them speaking, get to ask them questions and say they think they would like to (become patients)."
Practices that compensate according to productivity often pay physicians to participate in lectures and presentations, Herrod says.
Another barrier to the outreach process is the amount of time necessary to prepare a lecture, a problem that can be resolved by delegating the planning responsibilities to a marketing department.
Eliscu of Medical Marketing acknowledges that it's difficult for a practice to maintain a marketing program unless it has a staff person who is responsible for ensuring physicians have polished material to present and, initially, to get the word out that physicians are available to deliver it.
At Martin's Point, the physician responsibility for marketing is "virtually nil," Weinschenk says. "We take care of their flowcharts, PowerPoint slides and scheduling. (Our role) is key to keeping them interested and available."
One disincentive for physician groups to offer lectures is the effort it takes to track the impact of their outreach, e.g., the number of new referrals generated by a particular lecture. Consequently, most don't. Even Dean Medical Center, which has offered lectures for more than 10 years, does not track the number of patients who are attracted by physician presentations.
Tracking is complicated by a number of factors, such as whether a lecture is initiated by the practice or by an invitation from the physician's affiliated hospital or a community group.
But despite these obstacles, Herrod is a firm outreach advocate. "Physician outreach efforts through speaking and providing educational lectures is probably one of the most underutilized marketing tools that physicians and medical groups can use," he says.