Relationship Development Strategies for your Pain Practice
By Paul Lynch, MD, & Tory McJunkin, MD
Dear Arizona Pain Specialists,
My partner and I run a growing interventional pain practice. During the last three months we hired a new physician and are opening a new location soon. I know marketing pain management practices has been viewed negatively in the past, but it is important for us to market our new location and new physician to generate business for the clinic. However, I’m not sure the best ways to utilize a marketing campaign to create business for our new clinic and cultivate new relationships with potential referring physicians. Do you have any suggestions that can help us market and develop our business and relationships in the community (including potential patients and referring physicians), while also helping us sustain that growth and development over the long-term?
Mixed-Up about Marketing
Dear Mixed-Up about Marketing,
Business development has become a vital component of a pain management practice. Still, most physicians are not trained how to develop referral sources and identify new markets. Traditionally, marketing pain management practices has been viewed in an unflattering light. However, chances are your competition is doing just that because relying on word of mouth and a good reputation, while still critical, are no longer sufficient. Creating a marketing plan for your practice need not be intimidating. With a bit of research and strategic communication, your practice will flourish with strong referral relationships.
The pain management specialty has become plagued with “pill mill” practices, many of which are raided and closed by the DEA. Every detail of such dramatic events are often recorded for the evening news, leaving those in the specialty who operate ethical practices to suffer from misperception. Physicians who lack adequate training to practice appropriate pain management cast an ugly shadow on the rest of the field. Those who are truly serving their patients with the best care should consider how these closures and media coverage influence the community’s opinion. The solution is education. Marketing is an opportunity to educate referral sources and patients on the merits of appropriate and effective pain management. With the right campaign, you set the tone for the conversation about the specialty in your community.
To develop new business, first spend time reviewing the positive and negative characteristics of your current practice. What do you and your staff do really well? What are you proud of? What makes you different than the pain practice across town? On the other hand, what bothers you about your work? What do you know you could be doing better? What is the most common complaint you hear from patients? This introspection can yield several ideas to utilize in marketing efforts, as well as to identify areas where your practice may not fare as well compared to your local “competition.” A healthy business strategy regularly challenges your staff to leap past stagnant comfort zones. When you are working together in this growth mode your practice will see new business in ways you couldn’t have anticipated, as people notice and are drawn toward success.
Time spent reviewing the competition is also critically important. In this analysis, you’ll ideally be able to identify areas where your services are superior. These areas are your marketing leverage. For example, perhaps, your practice is the only one in the area that offers both interventional pain management modalities and medication management. If your services are comparable to other pain practices, consider your qualifications. Are you the only board-certified specialist in your area? Are your customer service, and/or timeliness of scheduling new patient referral appointments excellent? The act of self-evaluation will help find areas to improve in your practice and this will subsequently increase referrals and your reputation. That said, word-of-mouth will always be the best referral source and the one you have to work the hardest to maintain.
If introspection is not your strength, consider asking patients for specific feedback. Patients will be honest about what they do and do not appreciate about your practice. Perhaps the front desk person is impolite – but of course not in front of physician-owner. Perhaps the waiting room bathrooms need to be cleaned more often. Perhaps the wait time is unbearable. These are details the typical physician-owner would not see because you are busy doing what you are great at: practicing medicine. The successful practice must see the forest for the trees. Listening to patients – perhaps through a simple evaluation completed after service – is a great way to gather information to fine-tune your work.
Once the key positive characteristics of your practice have been identified, the marketing message must be crafted. It’s imperative to highlight your practices strengths. It’s just as important to never say anything negative about your competition as this will probably damage your reputation and will foster ill will in your pain treating community. It’s important to have a consistent message verbally, on brochures, and on your website. A decision must be made as to who and how that message will be delivered to the marketplace. This message should be consistent, clear and should target exactly who you want to attract to your business – including new and existing referral sources.
Although it may not make sense for a physician to single-handedly run a marketing campaign, the campaign must start at the top. All community networking opportunities should be taken advantage of to spread your message. Visiting top referral sources for a meal and discussion is a great way to strengthen relationships. Provide your cell phone number to referring physicians and encourage them to call whenever they have a question regarding a possible patient. Imagine this conversation from the patients’ perspective: they are much more likely to follow through with the referral when they know there is a specialist already familiar with their situation. It would make even more of an impact if it is a specialist their trusted primary care physician has on speed dial.
Making strong relationships with referring physicians is dually beneficial. Regardless of the pain practice, there will be difficult patients. Likely, there will be patients who need to be discharged from service, and perhaps discontinued from opioid medications. When the pain physician has a good working relationship with the referring physician, it is easy to make a phone call to explain these decisions before an unsatisfied and often time’s angry patient has a chance to do so. It is wise to make these calls as soon as possible so that you prevent misinformation from reaching your referral sources. Chances are the referring physician will not only understand and appreciate the follow up with the patient’s treatment plan, but also have their own difficult patient story to swap.
A marketing campaign should start with a strong “elevator speech.” This is a thirty second speech that can be given in the time it takes to ride an elevator that explains to someone else what your practice does. The overall marketing campaign should then build off of this foundation. Typically practices will start with a marketing brochure, and might expand to website development, radio, magazine, newspaper, and television.
Aside from marketing and developing relationships with referring physicians and patients, it is important to consider other opportunities to forge connections with hospitals, urgent care centers, and even large employers. Often pain physicians are too busy with outpatient clinics to handle inpatient issues, but that doesn’t mean relationships with hospitals are impossible. Hospitals can be valuable partners in providing high-quality pain management services to patients. Pain management procedures such as the MILD procedure by Vertos Medical, kyphoplasty, and the permanent implantation of intra-thecal pumps and spinal cord stimulators are often performed in hospitals. Therefore knowing hospital leadership – especially those who decide who will be hired and/or allowed to perform these procedures at the facility – is wise.
As the physician and marketing representative develop and maintain long-standing relationships, there is an inherent value in tracking the number and source of referrals. In today’s medical marketplace of managed care and declining reimbursements, a referral source may not have the time to contact you and express dissatisfaction or concerns with a particular patient scenario. The referring physician may simply start to refer their patients elsewhere without giving you the opportunity to address the issues at hand. By tracking the number of referrals coming into your practice, you can monitor in real-time whether there is a decrease or increase of referrals by a source. If a decrease in referrals is noticed, there is opportunity to address the situation by the pain physician.
A thriving pain practice with diverse referral sources, a broad patient base and a sterling reputation in the community comes from two key elements: strong relationships and superior communication. These are developed by practicing great medicine, hiring employees with excellent character and being selective as to how the physicians spend their time outside of the practice. All are within reach, and all make the pain management specialty stronger and more respected within the community.
Dr. McJunkin and Dr. Lynch founded Arizona Pain Specialists, a comprehensive pain management practice with three locations, seven pain physicians, ten midlevel providers, three chiropractors, on-site research, and behavioral therapy. They teach nationally and are consultants for St. Jude Medical and Stryker Interventional Spine. Through their partner company, Boost Medical, they provide practice management and consulting services to other pain doctors throughout the country. For more information, visit ArizonaPain.com and BoostMedical.com.