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