By Eric Wicklund
November 25, 2020 – The sharp increase in telehealth use during the pandemic is giving healthcare providers new opportunities to expand their reach. But how can they make patients – both potential and existing – aware of their new services?
The answer lies in marketing, a discipline not entirely familiar to solo and small practices and clinics that have relied on referrals, word of mouth and perhaps one big sign out front to build business. And at a time when budgets are stretched thin and competition is coming from all sides, a plan for promoting one’s services could be the key to staying in the black.
mHealthIntelligence recently sat down – virtually – with Jonathan Treiber, a digital marketing and technology expert and co-founder of RevTrax, to talk about how small providers should be marketing their connected health capabilities.
Q. What factors must a clinic or small practice consider when creating a plan to market new telehealth services?
A. “Some factors to include are how to streamline the paper-intensive new patient or patient data entry. This process automation or streamlining effort will pay off in spaces for both telehealth (and) in-office patient experience. Another key back office item is ensuring the proper processes for patient and insurance billing and reimbursement. One other critical component is revisiting the patient experience to ensure a professional, streamlined and efficient approach while ensuring the appropriate level of personalization and bedside manner, which is harder to translate into virtual telehealth.”
READ MORE: How One Dermatologist Learned to Launch – and Like – Telehealth
Treiber’s point is that telehealth isn’t just about connecting the patient to the provider for a virtual visit. The back end of the platform has to be as efficient as the front end, and it’s that part of the business that is often overlooked in the switch to digital. The result is a complicated billing or charting process that turns off staff as well as patients.
As well, the virtual front door has to be easy to open – patients have to be able to connect with staff, ask questions and make appointments quickly and smoothly, with a minimum of effort. A practice or clinic that advertises an efficient telehealth experience but provides too many hoops to jump through won’t see a lot of activity.
Q. Are there certain strategies to take into consideration when marketing to potential new patients as opposed to existing patients?
A. “The strategies that might work better in a digital arena involve digital marketing to attract new patients, such as Google ads for potential patients looking for solutions in a given market. Telehealth can be delivered anywhere, so healthcare delivery isn’t limited to the geography around a physical office location. Second, there are various programs (some gimmicky and some less so) with regard to social referral marketing and enabling a community online to foster patient affinity and capture word of mouth marketing, which is any physician’s best source of new patients.”
Today’s marketing goes far beyond the sign out front or on kiosks in the local shopping center. It has to be as virtual as the care offered, and connected to information channels that consumers use to find answers to their healthcare questions. Likewise, Treiber says, providers should take advantage of social media to build a presence – though those platforms should be carefully managed to avoid misuse.
READ MORE: A Georgia Non-Profit Looks to Market Telehealth to Rural America
Q. What aspects of a telehealth platform (cost, convenience, quality) should be emphasized in marketing?
A. “The goal is to market the service by offering the same quality of care with added convenience and lower cost/time. Some people will sacrifice quality for cost and convenience but the winning recipe is to ensure same or better quality while reducing friction for patients, such as travel time/costs and paperwork.”
Again, the experience has to be as advertised, so the practice has to be efficient with running a virtual office. And be sure to point out the advantages to virtual care – on-demand access from one’s own home, car or office, less time off from work or school, no need to travel, spend time in traffic, pay for gas and parking and sit in a waiting room.
Q. What should providers NOT do in marketing their telehealth programs (what are the common mistakes being made)?
A. “Providers should take a crawl/walk/run approach to marketing their digital platform. That means going out small at first to a small group of existing patients who will be beta users. Work out the kinks, as there will be plenty. Then launch with the current base of patients. It’s always better to test a new offering within the existing base. Next would be take the learnings around the patient value proposition and build a new marketing campaign focused on new patients. Start small, focusing at first on the current geographic market before venturing into other areas with the offering.”
READ MORE: Picking The Right Telehealth Platform For a Small or Solo Practice
A tried-and-true business plan, Treiber says, comes in small and easy stages. Hospitals and health systems will often test out their new telehealth capabilities by offering them first to a small group of employees or patients – that’s no different with a marketing plan. And be prepared to receive lots of feedback, and to act on those recommendations. The most important advice may well come from the first person coming through the virtual door.
Q. How should a provider measure the success of a marketing program?
A. “Success should be measured in terms of digital metrics such as conversion, sign-ups and repeat patients. Cost of new patient acquisition and, over time, an understanding of lifetime value of a patient – how much revenue can be generated in average from a new patient for as long as that patient is active.”
This is tricky, as a retail operation can’t always be measured with the same metrics as a healthcare system. But business rules do apply, and so it’s important to measure volume and activity in a virtual setting as compared to who’s coming through the actual front door. And while the bottom line may be improved clinical outcomes and convenience for the patient (and provider), one has to make sure a marketing plan is positively affecting those outcomes.
Q. How should a clinic or practice advertise its telehealth services against direct-to-consumer telehealth services? Against larger health systems?
A. “Individual practices need to focus on the experience and that practice’s own brand and personal touch. More diverse platforms that offer thousands of choices for practices will have to compete on breadth of offering. Individual practices need to focus on their niche to provide helpful and specific content to patients and offer a better experience.”
Treiber’s point is that competition is fierce. Large hospitals and health systems are using telehealth to reach into new communities, while retail clinics, pharmacies, community centers, and even online channels like Amazon are offering healthcare services. To survive in this new market, solo and small clinics have to focus on what makes them unique and preferable – such as a long-standing community presence and reputation, specialty services and feedback from patients – and develop marketing that stresses those advantages.
Q. How much should a small clinic or practice invest in marketing?
A. “This takes some testing and learning depending on how much it costs to acquire a new patient for a telehealth platform. The benchmarks out there vary wildly. A practice should be willing to spend about 10 percent to 20 percent of potential revenue on marketing. For example, if a practice generates $100,000 annually from telehealth, a marketing budget of $10,000 to $20,000 would likely be required to sustain and grow the practice.”
Again, this is tricky, and each practice or office will likely come up with a different business model. Most doctors have very little experience – and perhaps little interest – in selling themselves, so the advice here is to trust the business models in place and seek help from the experts.