By: 1 December 2008

Patients have more information and choice available to them. Increased communication, new initiatives like “choose and book”, and the latest reports on the NHS are all influencing the way both our public and private health systems are developing. The internet in particular has an enormous influence as patients and their families trawl through the sites searching for useful, relevant information. Are surgeons providing easy to find useful information for their potential patients?

Lord Darzi's report 'High Quality Care for All' made some extremely poignant points with regard to information technology which suggests not:

Health in an age of information and connectivity
The implications for health and healthcare are profound. It is easier to access information on how to stay healthy than ever before. People are able to quickly and conveniently find information about treatment and diseases in a way that was previously impossible. They are able, and want, to engage with others online, sharing information and experiences. They want to do their own research, reflect on what their clinicians have told them and discuss issues from an informed position. The challenge is ensuring that people are able to access reliable information. Evidence shows that clinicians have sometimes been slower in exploiting the potential of new information sources, such as the internet, than others. If that trend continues, there is a danger that people will have to navigate through myth and hearsay, rather than get easy access to evidence-based medical knowledge.”

You may well have first hand experience of dealing with this myth and hearsay in your own clinics. Finding yourself talking to patients about products you have little or no personal experience of, or discussing the potential pitfalls of surgery abroad. A good friend on mine recently had a hip problem and went on-line to find a myriad of information (mainly from US surgeons, or Orthopaedic companies). Very little of what he found was useful in helping him make a real informed decision. In the end he went to the local hospital to see a surgeon who his GP referred him to and one suspects this is more often than not the norm.

The relationship between Surgeon and Patient is a very special one. Nothing should influence that relationship, however your patients i.e. your customers, want information to make an informed decision, and GPs additionally need and want information on hip and knee procedures to advise their patients. If there is no information or insufficient information about you, or your hospital, then patients will not find you. They may look elsewhere for that information, and may be misled by “myth and hearsay”. Lord Darzi points out clinicians been slower to exploit the marketing potential and perhaps more surprisingly, this is also true of the private practice. If you look at many private hospital websites, information on surgeons who operate there, is often very scant. As part of our research, we looked at several sites recently and regularly found just the name of the surgeon; no photo; no information; no special skills; and no qualifications!

Many surgeons approach us wondering why more patients do not come to see them. The answer is simple – its marketing and you need to be active and make it easy for patients to find you. If patients want to find out about a particular surgeon or procedure where do they start? Even if they have been recommended a surgeon to go and see, there is very little information available on specific surgeons. Hospital sites vary enormously and the layperson is not familiar with who the manufacturers of implants are.

Having talked to many friends recently who have hip and knee complaints, they are very clear in terms of what they want.

  • General information about the surgeon and the hospital.
  • What type of prostheses the surgeon uses (so that they can research it further)
  • How many of these procedures the surgeon has done and/ or what his success rate is.
  • They want to know they will be safe in hospital. (Given recent media reports on MRSA, C difficile, vermin and insect infestations is it any wonder?)
  • Assurance they will receive the best procedure for their lifestyle or activity levels.
  • What outcome they can expect.
  • They also like to find out information from other patients.

In addition the surgeons want to give the patient the best procedure for that individual and make sure they are safe and have a successful outcome. Most surgeons also would like to link in with the GPs, providing the patient a pathway of care. So in essence if there is more of the appropriate, relevant information about the hospitals and surgeons, true informed decision making can be achieved.

To build a good reputation, and provide the right information to your patients, and their GPs, you have a great opportunity to market yourself and your hospital. This is not just relevant to the internet top 10 site. Grab this with both hands using the following big top ten hints, as a general guide, provided to try and help you in your endeavors:-

  1. Any marketing campaign needs to have return on investment. If you want to attract 100 patients a year to come and see you in clinic, you need to be targeting substantially more patients than that. So set yourself a realistic budget based on what return you expect. If you're planning a simple campaign consisting of branding, a proposition, stationery, literature and the use of the internet you need to expect and budget for consultancy, design and printing costs.
  2. For any healthcare campaign you could apply the rules set by former BBC presenter and producer, Jon Hammond (the Conference Coach) who describes 'W.I.I.F.M. – What's in it for me?'. Your patients will make their decision based on at least one of three things; their head, their heart, or their wallet. Writing copy to ensure you will gain that patient is not easy, a patient will not decide to come and see you unless you can appeal to them. Any campaign needs to have the sticky points – why should patients choose you rather than someone else to do their operation? Developing the glue, the sticky stuff can take time.
  3. Find time and recognise your own skill-set. You're busy doing the things you are good at, consulting with patients and treating them appropriately. Of course thats not to say that you should not come up with some ideas on how you would like to market yourself, or the messages your want to give or the look and feel you would like to portray. However, all this takes time and may require additional expert help to deliver those ideas, effectively and efficiently
  4. 'WOMM'. Do not underestimate the power of “Word of mouth marketing” (sometimes referred to as Viral marketing – a horrible term for healthcare!). One happy patient will have friends and relatives who may also need treatment, let them be your advert. Give them enough information to be able to refer you easily. For example – give the patient your business cards (don't have some – get some).
  5. Internet. A website can be anything a mate down the pub puts together to costing tens of thousands, however your site needs to represent you and your practice. Building a website alone is not marketing, and you need to focus on directing potential patients, customers to it. Do not be fooled into spending lots on search engine optimisation as evidence shows there is only a 1% chance of someone clicking onto page 2 of Google. Bear you are competing against the Government and implant Manufacturers for some of the key words. The internet marketing does not need to stop at just a website. There is also advertising, email campaigns or linking with other sites (eg your private practice or NHS hospital sites). Watch out for specific laws which regulate the use of email in any marketing campaign and you should seek guidance on these, before embarking down this route.
  6. The campaign needs to have a consistent look and feel to appear professional to the patients. It is the first point of contact the customer will have with you so ensure it is high quality. Patient information booklets need to be written in a clear, easy to understand way and bear in mind not everyone wants to sit reading off a computer screen.
  7. As far as working with the local community, talks can be given to the local GPs or patient groups. Talking to a group of patients through seminars can have a huge effect on their overall motivation, and this can be applied throughout the course of their treatment. A good presentation is well worth the investment in time and money, as can be presentation training to make the delivery highly effective.
  8. Once a patient is in a private hospital, they do not want to discover that they have paid for private treatment and the patient next to them has received the same operation and subsequent treatment and room in the hosptial through the NHS choose and book. Patients like most of us want to know they have received value for money, and for that there needs to be a degree of differentiation for the private patients. This can all form part of your overall marketing strategy.
  9. Appear independent from the manufacturers of the components. The relationship between doctor and patient is a very special one. They want to know you are using the best products for them and there is no harm in displaying the products, however to be seen to be independent gives a huge amount of credibility.
  10. If you decide to go into partnership with other colleagues, this adds enormously to the return on investment, since you will have more money available to spend on your overall campaign. However, be very cautious you do not spend all the money on setting up your limited liability partnership for example, only to find you are competing with a similar set-up a few miles away. Setting up a limited liability for example is a very straightforward and fairly inexpensive and you can use your combined money and efforts to drive patients to your group practice.

All of these ten tips are intended to try and help with your campaign and improve the patient information. Your next steps. Finding a healthcare marketing company can save you time and money if they have specialist knowledge and a thorough understanding of the healthcare market. This will ensure your campaign will be effective in appealing to your customers. Talk to them about your needs and ideas and they can tailor a suitable campaign to your budget.

Good luck – next patient please!

Jason Wilson is the Managing Director of getmoretime healthcare marketing (a Get More Time Limited Company). Email any comments to