5 trends putting the squeeze on surgical practices

Written by Staff | September 15, 2015 | Print  |

1. Patients Are More Web Savvy Than Most Healthcare Practices

The Internet has dramatically changed the way patients seek healthcare information across the board. Access has expanded and trust has grown. Today, 87% of U.S. adults have access to the Internet, and 80% of those use it to research health topics. Fifty-nine percent of smartphone owners have used their devices for health-related purposes.


These digital healthcare seekers perform thoughtful online research and recognize leaders in the field as they go. They have a high awareness of their options and have even higher expectations of receiving the best patient experience. They consume and collect a large amount of content before they even approach a surgical practice or specialty clinic. The doctor is often the third or fourth point of engagement.


The first 90% of a patient’s online journey is spent trying to understand their symptoms and conditions and learn what treatments and procedures are available. They only proactively look for a specific practice at the very end. That’s why 85% of patients make a provider decision before they ever pick up the phone to call a practice.

2. The Web Is Rich with Content, and First Impressions Are Now Made Online


It’s no longer enough to just have a website and expect patients to call because their physicians have directed them to your practice or because the practice is the most convenient. Physicians need to have a presence where patients are doing their research and consuming content, providing education to help them make an informed decision. No matter how web-savvy a physician is as an individual user, it doesn’t translate into how the practice performs online. It’s not enough to be a doctor or run a practice, dedicated educational content expertise is required to reach through the web and connect a practice with those looking for relief.


The digital demands of consumers are high, and healthcare overall hasn’t caught up with them. Practice administrators experience this in working with payers, policy makers, labs and equipment vendors. The bar has been raised for online service in every aspect of a consumer’s life, from banking and shopping to travel, entertainment and healthcare. Many small, mid-sized, and even large hospital practices don’t have a sufficient presence in the new digital landscape. Healthcare is largely three to five years behind the digital times of other consumer-driven industries. Web savvy practices that position themselves as thought leaders are able to capitalize and grow, helping more people. Other practices struggle financially because the focus remains within the practice and not outside its walls.


3. Web Education and Presence Has Become an Additional Required Specialty for Surgical Practices


Web marketing is now a specialty, as much orthopedics is a specialty, and it’s just as critical to the survival of a practice as surgical skill. Effective web marketing is required to navigate the new complexities and reap measureable results. This kind of marketing is more sophisticated than just buying Google or MSN search ads or sending out emails. Like a hedge fund for investment, it is wise to mix up the channels and not rely on just one. The overall lift is greater with less risk.


"The money you put toward marketing should get a good rate of return in efficiently driving new patients into your practice. Every marketing dollar you spend should be measurable across all channels.”
–Colin Vadheim, Practice Administrator, Advanced Spine Institute & BPCA member


4. Healthcare Consumers Select the Best Educators. It’s a “Prove It to Me” Healthcare Market.


If healthcare consumers can’t find your practice online, it’s a challenge to grow practice volume. Volume has become increasingly important as the focus has shifted from just the procedures performed to include the total continuum of care and patient outcomes.


Practices can no longer afford to be left with unused surgical capacity. It’s too costly to cover the equipment and other fixed costs if operating rooms sit idle. Some practices continue to rely on passive word of mouth, billboards, print ads and radio spots to attract qualified patient candidates, investing expensive marketing dollars with little ability to track results. Optimizing surgical capacity requires getting the right message to the right person at the right time online—becoming an expert patient educator, participating deftly in the digital dialogue.


A good exercise is to have a discussion with the practice team that starts with the question, “What makes our practice unique?” Other practices are articulating their value proposition, so it’s important to position your practice as unique. Otherwise, it’s easy for healthcare consumers to start viewing practices as commodities, with a seemingly unlimited number of choices that sound just alike. A common mistake is trying to be all things to all people. What is a practice known for? If it does one thing extremely well, then the assumption often follows that other procedures are done well. Trying to promote a practice as being an expert in everything lacks credibility for the healthcare consumer.


Practices need to show that they provide the ideal caring, empathetic patient experience healthcare consumers are seeking. It’s a healthcare consumer world. If a prospective patient doesn’t feel cared for at every touch point, they will go somewhere else. Patient loyalty is earned, not granted, and a practice’s reputation is established well before a patient enters a facility.


5. Surgical Practices Have Become Acquisition Targets


Since the first Ambulatory Surgery Center (ASC) opened in 1970, physicians have continued to drive the development of surgical practices and specialty clinics. Ninety percent of ASCs, for example, continue to be owned in some part by physicians, but mergers and acquisitions are trending. Hospitals currently have ownership interest in 23% of ASCs and wholly own 2% of them. Acquisitions and mergers are often necessary to gain economies of scale to achieve and maintain profitability.


Many small and mid-sized surgical practices and specialty clinics want to maintain full independence and not be acquired by a larger practice. But they are vulnerable to accepting a buy-out just to gain the infrastructure they need to stay afloat.


For practices that are looking to be acquired, there’s a different problem. Not having an attractive patient volume and patient acquisition strategy in place weakens their negotiating position. Specialty clinics that partner with ASCs or hospitals have an added challenge. It’s harder for them to maintain a unique identity and value proposition to patients that is distinct from the partner facilities. Again, there’s a need to focus and control the messaging to patients to convey a unique value proposition.


Necessity Is the Mother of New Solutions


So how does practice management navigate a new web world of pay per clicks, search engine optimization, landing page refinement, educational content, production and placement to increase site visits and conversion rates, while ensuring mobile compatibility? More than 900 different web marketing factors come together in different combinations to convert a healthcare consumer to a patient at a single facility.


One solution is to bring marketing expertise in-house. This can cost millions of dollars in infrastructure for end-to-end staffing and technology, from call center operations to robust analytics. Another solution is to hire an outside marketing agency, which can cost as much or more in retainer fees. A more cost-effective solution is to work with a patient acquisition network such as Back Pain Centers of America (BPCA). This solution provides practices with access to needed expertise and infrastructure, while spreading the costs across many practices through economies of scale.


One Thing Hasn’t Changed…Putting Patients First


In today’s highly competitive health care environment, it can be easy to push for patients’ attention by leaning too much on a practice’s accomplishments and accolades. Patients still want an empathetic voice answering every call and a physician who looks them in the eye during an appointment. There’s simply nothing more important than understanding the patient—who they are and what’s most important to them throughout every touchpoint. Learning and implementing best practices in the patient experience journey can make all the difference in active word-of-mouth growth, which is the best form of marketing, and it’s free.


In a consumer study conducted by Rosenthal Schoor in 2012, patients listed the most important criteria to them in selecting a surgical practice or specialty clinic:


• Appropriate accredited surgical specialty
• Third party validation of the surgeon or practice via patient testimonials, word-of-mouth or published educational content
• The surgeon’s reputation and credentials
• A human being who answers the phone and is polite and courteous
• Respectful treatment and personal attention
• Timely scheduling
• Clear communication before, during and after surgery
• Full disclosure and clear communication up front of fee information
• A clearly articulated message that builds credibility and trust before the doctor-patient relationship is established
• Being made to feel like a person and not like a case


These are the key points of how a consumer makes a healthcare decision. It feeds directly into the one measure that matters: would a patient feel comfortable trusting the practice with their own surgery or that of a friend or a loved one?


Many practices address most or all of these areas internally. Where the conversation often stops is in considering how to communicate with patients and educate them before they come in the door. The establishment of the patient-doctor relationship begins earlier than the clinic visit.


Joining the right patient acquisition network can help build a practice’s qualified patient candidate volume with a solid return on investment, while allowing the practice to maintain independence.


*This article is sponsored by Back Pain Centers of America.

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