April 2001 Bulletin

Low-cost marketing can have big returns

‘There‘s a whole host of things that you can do that‘ll cost you nothing. . . to make the public aware of your abilities. . . .’

Sponsoring events, talks, T-shirts raise visibility

By Sandra Lee Breisch

So you want to market your practice, but can’t afford to dole out a lot of dollars. You also can’t afford to wait for patients to magically appear at your doorstep.

With a little bit of time, creativity and minimal-to-no costs, you can create your own bare bones marketing campaign.

"There’s a whole host of things that you can do that’ll cost you nothing or next to nothing to make the public aware of your abilities and increase your patient base," explains Paul C. Collins, MD, of Boise, Idaho. "You’ve just got to actively network in your community to sell yourself and your practice."

And that’s exactly what Dr. Collins has done over the years to see his patient base and practice size grow.

When Dr. Collins is not in clinic or in the OR, he is at the sidelines of such team sporting events as Nordic skiing to kayak racing. Or he’s participating in the hospital’s speakers bureau or doing free consultations at health fairs, speaking at civic and charitable events. "You want the people who meet you in the community to think of you as a resource, a friend, as well as a physician," says Dr. Collins. "And the only way you can do this is by putting some time and effort out there so that people who need your help know who you are and can find you."

Dr. Collins utilizes inexpensive marketing resources: AAOS collateral material such as brochures with the practice’s name stamped on it, slide presentations for group lectures and the AAOS web site. "The web site has some wonderful resources for consumers such as ‘Your Orthopaedic Connection’ that has a comprehensive library of orthopaedic information, booklets, fact sheets and brochures that are all free," he says.

Spending minimal dollars, he’s advertised in the local newspapers and phone books. He says he reaps benefits from the hospital’s physician referral service. "The only thing it costs you is your time," says Dr. Collins. "But make sure the hospital knows what you specialize in so you don’t get poor referrals."

Being a safety advocate does have its marketing advantages. Dr. Collins promotes preventing sports-related injuries by public speaking and provides sponsorship funds to buy helmets and other gear for the ski patrol and bicycle racing teams. Costs for purchasing 15 helmets might run about $500 and he gets gear discounts from the local ski shop.

"This is not exactly bare bones marketing," he admits. "But it’s perhaps some of the smartest bucks we’ve ever spent to show we’re interested in promoting safety. Besides that, people will wear your helmet with the practice’s logo on it for years. For example, if someone falls down skiing and is picked up by the ski patrol, they’ll see your name on your helmet and know who to call for care."

Dr. Collins also sponsors sporting events such as 5K runs or walks. "It doesn’t cost much more than $200-$2,000, depending on what we’re donating," Dr. Collins explains. "Buying T-shirts that have our logo on them is more expensive than if we just paid for a logo on the T-shirt. The point is your practice’s identity will be on those items."

Dr. Collins is also involved in a program that provides soccer coaches and referees with Red Cross injury prevention training. "Again, this reinforces our practice’s concern for safety," he stresses.

Approaching your local newspaper editors with orthopaedic-related article ideas is also a "wonderful and free way" to advertise your practice, notes Dr. Collins. He writes weekly columns for his local newspaper. "Editors are almost always looking for timely information on orthopaedic conditions," he says. "But you have to be open to an editor’s suggestions, editorial guidelines such as meeting deadlines and writing in laymen’s terms."

At the end of his columns, Dr. Collins advertises for the Academy by citing the aaos.org web site and any other Internet sites related to the topic.

Dr. Collins also gives sports medicine weekly updates on a local television station and gets free airtime for similar radio spots. "The relationship with the television station began after they contacted me about a particular story," he says. "Then they asked if I could come on a regular basis to talk about orthopaedic issues."

Although the above media marketing efforts are time-consuming, they "don’t cost" him a dime. And his 11 partners "benefit as much or more" than he does, notes Dr. Collins.

What’s the downside of not marketing?

"You’ll get patients who cannot benefit from your visit because their problem is not suited toward your specialty," says Dr. Collins. "Your practice will not grow significantly, physician referrals will be more difficult because the other physicians do not know you or what you specialize in and the community will have a hard time finding you."

When solo practitioner Diana Deane Carr, MD, is not busy being a hand surgeon, she’s also out there actively marketing the Hand and Shoulder Specialists in the senior retirement town of Sebring, Fla.

"The whole concept of what I do is called ‘cheap marketing,’ and that’s community service marketing that includes giving educational talks to the retirement community, hospitals, civic groups, churches and libraries" says Dr. Carr. Many of her lectures are given to folks in trailer park communities; she usually provides coffee, soft drinks and snacks. "But at hospitals and other forums, they’ll provide the refreshments and it doesn’t cost you anything," she says.

The main thing is that you "target" your audience correctly, she says. "If your specialty is in sports injuries, you might want to speak to a sports group," says Dr. Carr. She suggests contacting high school coaches, running clubs and other groups interested in sports injuries.

A hospital’s marketing department is often looking for specialists to put on their patient education channels, notes Dr. Carr.

And don’t be afraid of public speaking, stresses Dr. Carr. "It’s not as if you’re giving a big scientific presentation," she says. "You’ll be explaining the same kinds of things and answering the same kind of questions patients would ask you in the office."

Always leave your attendees with something that "reminds" them of you. "Refrigerator magnets, calendars and pens are immensely popular and people tend to know where you are should they need an orthopaedic surgeon," says Dr. Carr. "If you have your web site printed on your handouts, it makes people think you’re sophisticated."

Dr. Carr recommends physicians take advantage of the Academy’s resources to build their own web site. "I also have my own web site that I paid around $500 for so patients can fill in their own personal information prior to the visit," she says.

Promoting safety is always a good idea. "Make use of the Academy’s educational programs," she says. "The Drive It Safe program promotes safe driving techniques and the Live It Safe program gives people good tips on how to prevent broken hips," she says.

Although Dr. Carr uses Academy slides for presentations, she wanted to make her own slides. She took computer classes so she wouldn’t have to pay a consultant to make them for her. "It’s fairly easy and inexpensive to make your own slides through PowerPoint® and also transfer digital camera images to the computer that can be turned into slides," she says.

Stresses Dr. Collins, "Although many people look at marketing as self-serving, it’s really a way to serve your patients."

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