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10 Steps for Direct-to-Patient Marketing for GI Surgery Centers

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Here are 10 steps for gastroenterology-focused surgery centers to engage in direct-to-patient marketing.

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Lateef Abro discusses surgery center marketing1. Direct mailings throughout covered regions. Some have questioned the effectiveness of direct mailing to every person in a given region, but Lateef Mauricio Abro, COO of NOVA MedMarket, still finds the method highly effective for gastroenterology. A surgery center he worked with spent $3,000 per month on direct mailing campaigns with letters to 5,000 people. The surgery center usually received around 50 respondents needing their services.

"The competition in direct mail is relatively low for specialists," says Mr. Abro. "There's a really high return on investment. All they really need is to get one patient."

This group does direct mailing for three months every other quarter and takes advantage of bulk mailing rates to connect with every residence within their geographic area.

2. Build an attractive website. According to recent reports, around 80 percent of the population uses the internet for healthcare needs. People are searching for answers to healthcare questions and researching their providers before even making their first visit to the actual office. Gastroenterologists and surgery centers must make sure their website is visible in their region and appealing for patients who visit.

"When a prospective patient visitors the surgery center's website, we want to make them act," says Mr. Abro. "Up to recently, medical specialists would get a lot of traffic from insurance directories; today, the legislative environment and the intensified competitive landscape is such that the website has become much more important to have a website that offers a high rate of conversions from visitor to patient."

Patients should be able to request appointments and view patient testimonials on your website easily. You can also place links to the surgery center's Facebook or Yelp page where patients leave positive reviews.

"Your website is the extension of your practice that's open 24/7 and it should represent the same values and differentiators that are offered at your physical," says Mr. Abro. "If your office is inviting and high tech, have a virtual tour available online so people can envision themselves at your office. It's also very important to have a strong search engine optimization program in place. You want your website to be the first one to come up when someone in your city types in 'gastroenterology.'"

If your surgery center doesn't have a seasoned digital marketing expert, consider outsourcing the service to a company practiced in medical website management. "We've invested in optimizing our website and focused less on newspaper advertising," says Catherine Sayers, director of operations at Pinnacle III and administrator at Skyline Endoscopy Center in Loveland, Colo. "If you don't have a website, develop one. If you do have a website but it's languishing, work with someone who can boost your website optimization which brings up your facility's name on internet search engines."

3. Participate in social media.
Beyond your formal website, the surgery center should also have an active Facebook page, Twitter account or blog to participate in social media at the local and global levels.

"Encourage patients to post happy reviews or like you on Facebook to form a digital community because that's where the world is heading," says Mr. Abro. "Social media and reputation management lends itself to being best taken care of by someone who is truly a stakeholder in the practice, such as an office manager or doctor who works with patients day in and day out."

Shama Kabani on surgeyr center marketingMake sure you interact with patients in this space; don't just post your own information. "The best way to reach patients is to make sure you come up as the answer to their question," says Shama Kabani, CEO of The Marketing Zen Group. "Staying in touch with current and former patients is a great way to get referrals. These are types of online marketing techniques GI centers should be considering."

In addition to posting content, you can also target likely patients with Facebook advertisements. Facebook lets you target based on zip codes, age demographics and other interests. "You can target 'what' and 'who' based on geography," says Ms. Kabani. "Also remember that on Facebook ads, images matter more than words. Put images on the ads that are loosely related to the content, but will catch your attention."

4. Write a local newspaper column.
Gastroenterologists looking to expand their practice through direct-to-patient marketing can write a column in a local newspaper about general health or GI-related issues, framing themselves as an expert in these topics. Readers from around the community will become familiar with the column and call your practice when an issue arises.

Alan Guinn on surgery center marketingIf an opportunity in the local newspaper isn't available, explore magazine and other print source opportunities. "Most local newspapers accept articles of 400 to 750 words of a general nature that have an interest to their readers," says Alan Guinn, managing director and CEO of The Guinn Consultancy Group. "Magazine articles are normally 750 to 900 words in length, and may include photos."

The publication may also have a space to include a short, two-inch advertisement for your practice. "All writing you either do or commission will help develop name recognition from the GI practice, and the intent of this is to both educate and build name recognition," says Mr. Guinn. "The individual physician can either opt out the article to a writing expert or assign the task to a PA or office manager, reviewing the final content of the article for validity and applicability."

Writing for another publication can also boost your online presence. "Any content on your own domain name is great for SEO and driving qualified traffic," says Ms. Kabani. "A link back to the original source will help SEO."

5. Send out a monthly newsletter.
Create a monthly newsletter — either electronic or in print — that includes news about the practice, patient feedback, stories from satisfied patients and upcoming events. Update patients and others on the circulation list about the next lunch forums or community events the surgery center sponsors. You can also include informational or educational articles about health maintenance and other tips that may interest your patients.
John Emmanuel on surgery center marketing
"There could also be part of the newsletter about referrals and give a prize or gift certificate to those who refer," says John Emmanuel, a creative marketing consultant. "The person that has been referred could get a free initial consultation, which costs nothing more than a small amount of time."

In addition to a monthly newsletter, post blogs with information on hot topics such as answering the most frequently asked questions about the specialty. "We post physician lectures and other articles on our blog," says Ms. Sayers. "Putting more information on our blog attracts people to the website who are interested in learning more about our services. It costs a little bit of money to maintain but, in the long run, it appears to be more cost effective than other available advertising sources."

6. Hold local events with educational value.
Gastroenterologists and their office partners can hold educational forums, such as a "lunch forum" at a local library or university to reach potential patients. The physicians can discuss latest practice and how specialists differ from general practitioners. They can also talk about expected outcomes and help patients visualize their participation in GI activities.

"Many GI activities can be discussed in such a way to decrease the fear or anxiety of the participating patient, and that can help fill pipelines for new patients as well as help cement relationships with current or past patients," says Mr. Guinn. "An additional benefit arising from these is that there is normally always press coverage, and one may feel free to seek sponsors' support with press releases or media alerts, letting the media know of the event."

You can accomplish this goal digitally as well by starting an online campaign related to the important issues in gastroenterology, such as colon cancer screening. You can sponsor a campaign for screening everyone within the at-risk demographic.

"You can set up a page that promotes a healthy lifestyle or achieving health goals that is bigger than just the GI center but can be sponsored by the center," says Ms. Kabani. "That can be really powerful."

7. Participate in community events.
A relatively cost effective marketing strategy should include participating in health fairs and other community events. Ms. Sayers relays her center has a booth at the annual health fair a local television station holds in various locations throughout the state and participates in health events sponsored by local hospitals.

"People go to the health fair for blood tests or other screening services and stop at our booth for information," she says. "We attend both to provide education to the community and get our name out there. Our gastroenterologists make every effort to be there as well spending time at the booth to promote the center. We take educational materials with our facility's name on them and distribute them throughout the fair."

There are additional events and speaking opportunities for the gastroenterologists during the National Crohn's & Colitis Walk in October and Colon Cancer Awareness Month in March. "We've participated in those events with our center's gastroenterologists featured as speakers," Ms. Sayers says. "These free events drive patients to our center."

The center usually asks gastroenterologists and staff members to volunteer at these health fairs and other events to keep costs low. "The key to successful direct patient marketing is physicians and staff members who are really engaged," says Ms. Sayers. "They should be able to provide useful, accurate information and develop a rapport with the community that reflects well on the center."

8. Personally contact lost patients about their experience.
When patients don't return to your physician's practice or surgery center after their initial visit, contact them directly to gather feedback and ask them to return.

"Offer some sort of incentive, such as a thank you for their feedback, and ask them if they would return," says Mr. Emmanuel. "This could be a discount on their next visit to the center."

You can find some of these patients online — those that leave negative messages on your surgeon reviews or Yelp. "Gastroenterologists should respond to bad reviews posted by patients on Yelp and Google Plus," says Mr. Abro. "They can offer an explanation and ask the patient to call in to rectify the situation - this may prompt the patient to follow up on their negative comment, with a positive testimonial."

9. Hang signs in the waiting room encouraging referrals.
Many specialists traditionally found word-of-mouth marketing the most effective way to engage new patients. In tough economic times, surgery centers can give their current patients a nudge in the right direction by reminding them to refer their friends or relatives.

"[Surgery centers] can have signage in the waiting area and consulting room reminding patients that they can refer and what goodies they can get for referring," says Mr. Emmanuel. "This needs to be creative."

If the practice offers incentives for patients to refer their friends or relatives, such as a free service or entrance into a drawing, make sure that is prominent on these signs.

10. Advertise with local medical and society publications.
In many communities, local newspapers and medical societies release lists of all area providers and offer the opportunity to advertise within those publications. The lists are distributed to people throughout the community and could reach some potential patients, but may not be very cost effective.

"Advertising in medical directories tends to be expensive and may not provide a good return on your investment," notes Ms. Sayers. "If there is extra money in your annual marketing budget, it might be worth placing an ad and monitoring the ROI."

It can be difficult to track how patients are finding your surgery center, especially if they don't provide that information upfront. Surgery centers may ask that question on patient survey cards, but most only receive about 30 percent return on those efforts.

"Determining ROI can be difficult," says Ms. Sayers. "We get a gut feeling but that isn't measurable."

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