Recruiting new patients requires a multi-faceted approach. A rheumatologist must have a solid brand and marketing platform, as well as an active strategy to attract and convert new patients. This might involve embracing social media, having a website, developing a referral network, being involved in your community and nurturing existing patients.
Your brand includes such items as your logo, your office’s decor, how your receptionist answers the phone, how long patients remain in the waiting area and so forth. “Every component of the patient experience affects how they perceive your brand,” says Nathan Yerian, president, Adhere Creative, a marketing agency based in Houston. “Your brand is not what you say it is; it is what patients say it is.”
Brands are built over time and with consistency. When looking to improve your brand, outline the absolute best patient experience and then implement procedures to achieve that. When patients recognize, trust and have positive experiences with your brand, they will not only return—but they will also tell their friends and family about you.
Embrace Social Media
Promote your brand by participating in social media and having a website. Physician-created content (e.g., blogs, presentations, videos) will act as a magnet to attract potential new patients. “If a patient is seeking information online regarding a condition, and your practice is at the forefront of providing that information, they may be enticed to make an appointment,” Mr. Yerian says. Link the content back to your website, where patients can get more of their questions answered and can schedule an appointment.
If a practice continually produces great content, more doors will open, in the form of guest posts or opinion pieces in other media channels. “The goal is to spread your expert opinions as far and wide as possible,” Mr. Yerian says.
On your website, be sure to include the story of why you became a physician. “Patients enjoy learning about a doctor and why they chose this specialty,” says Elizabeth L. Perkins, MD, rheumatologist, Rheumatology Care Center, Birmingham, Ala. Ideally, your brand should tell the patient immediately who you are (i.e., personality), what you stand for (i.e., values) and what to expect (i.e., practice style).
Build a Network
Another way to gain referrals is via face-to-face meetings with primary care physicians (PCPs) and other specialists. “They will quickly gauge your practice style, demeanor, approach to referrals and key traits, which are far more memorable than record sharing across electronic health record systems,” Dr. Perkins says.
Adds Kelly Weselman, MD, FACR, rheumatologist, WellStar Medical Group, Atlanta, and chair of the ACR’s Communications and Marketing Committee, “Referring doctors like to put a face with a name. They also like knowing that they can contact you with questions or urgent consult needs.”
Steven Peltz, a consultant who specializes in practice management in Brewster, N.Y., and a member of the National Society of Certified Healthcare Business Consultants, advises scheduling a meeting with a new PCP once a week. After a year, you will have personally met almost 50 potential referring sources. “When a PCP refers a patient, be sure to keep the provider in the loop regarding the patient’s care,” he adds.
Another option is to mail a personalized letter stating your mission to help a PCP’s patients. This is more effective than a generic postcard or flyer, Dr. Perkins says. Include a personal anecdote about life at your office or how you’ve opened a new practice, moved to a new location or added a partner.
Set clear expectations with referring doctors. “They don’t want to waste time referring someone only to find out that you don’t treat [a specific] kind of patient,” Dr. Perkins says. Administrators can assist with this by conveying to offices beforehand how to refer a patient, which insurance plans are excluded and which diagnoses you do not treat.
When appropriate, discharge a patient back to primary care. “I guarantee that you’ll receive many more consultations from that PCP,” says Robert L. DiGiovanni, DO, FACOI, FACR, program director, Rheumatology Fellowship, Largo Medical Center, Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Suncoast Internal Medicine Consultants, Largo, Fla. “These doctors appreciate that we’ve helped solve their patient’s problem and that we trust them to follow patients for any flare-ups.”
Mr. Peltz also advises introducing yourself to pharmacists and asking for their business cards. Most likely, they will reciprocate. “Few physicians realize that pharmacists refer patients and are always grateful to meet someone to refer to,” he says.
Have a Community Presence
Participating in fundraising activities with your patients is a great way to engage them in advocacy and show how much you care. For example, Arthritis Foundation events, hospital and health fairs, and 5K races promote exercise, positive energy and shared interests. Build your website with links to the ACR, state societies and other patient advocacy groups to connect patients to the bigger community, Dr. Perkins advises.
Dr. Weselman has written short articles for local newspapers, which patients notice. “This doesn’t necessarily attract new business, but it reinforces to current patients that I am credible,” she says. “Then they spread the word.”
She also advises offering to give talks at local recreation centers, assisted living facilities, community centers, local health fairs and the like. You may also want to try a local chapter of the Arthritis Foundation or Lupus Foundation, because these organizations often seek physicians to speak on various topics.
Offer to give a talk at local Parent Teacher Association meetings about common rheumatological issues that adults and children face, Mr. Peltz suggests. “Tell anecdotes about how you helped patients with certain issues,” he says. “This is an easy and inexpensive way to have many potential patients meet you.”
Nurture Current Patients
Existing patients can be an excellent source of referrals. Spend time with them and ask if other family members are affected by their issue, Mr. Peltz says. It’s also good to get a bit personal; inquire about their interests and hobbies. Note these in their chart and ask about them at future visits.
Making yourself available to patients with urgent needs should be a top priority. “It’s easier to see a patient with knee pain and swelling due to rheumatoid arthritis (RA) right away in the office rather than seeing them later in the hospital with a septic joint,” Dr. DiGiovanni says. “Plus, this is a lot better for the patient.”
Along these lines, if a referring PCP calls and requests that you see a patient right away, skip lunch and see them that day. “It will pay dividends,” he says.
In addition, Dr. DiGiovanni advises putting new RA patients on a fast track. “There is a window of opportunity to treat RA as early as possible,” he says.
Dr. DiGiovanni is also a proponent of the concept of high touch and high tech. The former refers to how you approach patients. “Be attentive and empathetic,” he says. “Examine them at every visit. The pill that I prescribe is no different than the one recommended by the doctor down the street. Differentiate yourself by how you interact with patients.”
That said, it’s important to provide the best state-of-the-art care possible. To this end, Dr. DiGiovanni’s practice has embraced on-site services, including a CLIA-certified laboratory, digital radiography, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, low-field magnetic resonance imaging, musculoskeletal ultrasound (diagnostic and guided injections) and an outpatient infusion center.
An Ongoing Process
Finding new patients is not a one-and-done process. You have to continually take steps to improve your brand, marketing platform, and networking and referral strategies. If a practice dedicates the appropriate time and resources, it should generate a solid flow of new patients, Mr. Yerian concludes.
Karen Appold is a writer in Pennsylvania.