Marketing the OIC: Is It Time to Go Directly to Patients?

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Across the nation, outpatient imaging centers (OICs) are looking for ways to protect what they have built and ways to grow. Protection strategies usually involve shoring up relationships with key referrers and ensuring that the practice brand is established and being supported in every department. Growth presents an entirely new set of challenges—and opportunities. Some OICs are relying on organic growth; that is, they will execute those strategies that will add business through established processes, most often through the use of their outside practice representatives calling on current referrers to increase scan volume. Others, however, are moving outside their original business model and marketing plans by adding a direct-to-patient program to help increase revenue. These practices actively pursue cash-paying, elective scans. Not every OIC is qualified to go directly to patients. Those that cannot or should not make the direct appeal typically lack the infrastructure to support such a program. They may not only be lacking the proper practice brand, but may also lack the required internal marketing support, including a marketing plan, budget, and manager. All are necessary prior to jumping into patient-direct waters. Melanie Haymond is a radiology consultant based in Portland, Ore. Haymond’s work has taken her to OICs across the country, and she sees a changing health care landscape that must be factored into the patient-direct decision. “Outpatient imaging centers are working with a patient population that is different than it was ten years ago,” Haymond says. “We are now seeing patients who have done their research, who are very Internet-savvy, and who have a pretty good notion of why they are about to see their physicians. They are far more knowledgeable about the pain or injury or illness they are experiencing. Consequently, this has forced us to reexamine how we communicate with those patients.” The increase in self-directed care often focuses on the most personal health care decisions and, not surprisingly, the ones of most concern to women, as they are still the chief health care decision makers. As the patient-direct market matures, OICs will be reaching out to women about mammograms, outpatient interventional procedures, and MRIs. “Certainly, women’s health is a factor,” Haymond says. “Women are a little more choosy, and it is a factor in the direct appeal to consumers.” While women will continue to drive the vast majority of health care decisions, all prospective patients will be reviewing competing centers based primarily on three criteria. Price: As consumers assume more of the financial burden for their own care, they will be more judicious about how their money is spent. Quality: Considerations such as age and capability of equipment, experience and subspecialty expertise of the radiologists, and even report turnaround will all matter more to consumers as they become more empowered. Convenience: Location, hours, insurance assistance, and even parking are moving higher on the list of patient priorities. Pricing may be the biggest challenge of the three, as many OICs don’t understand the cost structure necessary to determine the pricing required to attract consumers. Include Referring Physicians In deciding whether to go directly to patients or adjust an existing program, OICs must take into account their relationships with their current referring physicians, some of whom may see the new strategy as a threat. “Confusion is one of the greatest concerns that an OIC can create with direct-to-patient marketing,” Haymond says. “Confusion could mean offering information that is counter to what a referring office might be suggesting or recommending. The key to offering the support to referring offices is not neglecting those physicians in the midst of it. One means of support is to use the ‘ask your doctor’ approach so doctors do not feel eliminated from the process.” Another approach supported by Haymond is to ensure that the patient’s primary care physician is contacted the moment an appointment is made. The phone call is a simple one, explaining that the patient has made an appointment and allowing the physician to contribute to the patient’s care. By keeping referring physicians (and even nonreferrers) in the communications loop, and by establishing a partnership in patient care, the OIC will greatly reduce the risk of isolating itself from the referral network. Once the decision to go directly to patients has been made, advertising and marketing options must be explored. The traditional methods of reaching out to consumers via mail, radio, and television are still valid, but their effectiveness is often eclipsed by the power of online marketing; this, for many OICs, means developing an appealing Web site. It is important to remember that there is no magic bullet—no single advertising or marketing effort that will accomplish all goals. Successful marketing is achieved in layers, with overlapping messages. Today, OICs can and should take advantage of the strategies and tactics used by corporate entities. Crucial to their success is the ability to fine-tune the message and deliver it to the most receptive segment of the local market. One of the companies providing both the messages and the means to deliver them to the best prospects is 3rdwave REACH3, Verona, Wis. Jim Schleck is the COO of 3rdwave and is overseeing the development of a unique program that can facilitate the transition to targeted marketing. “What it comes down to is that health care is a unique product, and you can’t offer a ‘two-for-one MRI’ just because it’s a deal,” Schleck explains. “We now have the ability to identify people who are likely to be sick and likely to pay the bills for services. We can’t create the artificial demand, as with other products, but we can target people who are ready at a specific time.” Schleck continues, “We’ve created a proprietary model—beehive clusters—that can tell us how likely people are to respond to marketing, and we are building into this the people who are likely to respond to retail medicine. We want to create consumers who ask for a specific OIC because they know it has an open MRI, for example, or some other feature they heard about through targeted marketing.” To augment a successful direct-mail campaign, the OIC should coordinate any external marketing (print, radio, or mail) with a Web reference that leads prospective patients not to the practice home page, but to a specially created landing page that addresses their specific point of entry. For example, the landing page welcoming someone from a radio spot might read, “Welcome, WRAD listeners.” Targeted marketing increases response. Regardless of the marketing strategies and tactics used, going the patient-direct route is an important business decision that should be undertaken only after careful review of the competitive landscape and the practice infrastructure, along with a professional cost-benefit analysis.