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10 Steps to Reaching Physicians

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April 01, 2008

Doctors can be a rewarding audience—if you know how to target them.

By: Daniel Weinbach

As Seen In Marketing Health Services
Article Published Spring 2008

Whether representing a hospital or a managed care company, a software firm or a pharmaceutical manufacturer, our healthcare marketing firm consistently finds itself developing marketing communications aimed at doctors because they are usually among our clients' most important target markets. However, despite the frequency of this challenge, I am always surprised by the anxiety-laden, visceral response our clients demonstrate when the discussion turns to reaching physicians. They breathe fast, talk loudly and even perspire!

Perhaps their reaction is a form of "white coat syndrome" that derives from their own healthcare encounters. More likely, though, their trepidation regarding communications aimed at doctors comes from myths and unfounded stereotypes that permeate the corridors of healthcare marketing departments—the sense that physicians require the most extraordinary marketing approaches under the sun. (Heck, why else would pharmaceutical companies spend so much money on this Holy Grail of target audiences?)

However in the 20-plus years that our healthcare advertising agency has handled healthcare-focused marketing communications for clients, we have discovered a number of truths about effectively reaching physicians. Based on these experiences—along with the input from some of our very smart healthcare clients—we have developed ten tips for effectively reaching and influencing physicians.

1. Don't be afraid. Doctors are people, too, and they're no more difficult to reach than any other group. True, doctors have some unique attributes, and they often require specialized communications approaches. Fortunately, though, as healthcare marketers, we have a number of resources to assist us. This publication is a testament to the wide array of tools available for more effectively reaching physicians. So relax and embrace the challenge.

2. Communicate directly! Use direct mail and e-mail. It's common to hear clients say, "Doctors don't read direct mail." Or they say, "Doctors are busy, right? They have important jobs that prevent them from the luxury of reviewing their mail." Yes, doctors are busy. But chances are they're no busier than other successful professionals and business people whose time is precious. And, like the average professional, some doctors read direct mail, and some do not. Some respond to e-mail marketing, and some do not. However, in our experience, we have typically seen better response from physician-directed mailings than from direct-mail campaigns to other audiences—sometimes generating response rates two to 10 times greater than the standard expectation for effective direct mail.

3. Don't assume doctors know everything. They may not know any more than you about a particular healthcare topic. Sure, when it comes to their specialty they are true experts. But ask a dermatologist about cutting edge treatment for bone cancer, and you're not likely to get much of an answer.
Why is this important? Because as marketers we often overlook the necessity to educate physicians about healthcare services for which they can become important referral sources. A primary care physician may be eager to refer her patients for a breast MRI if we educate her about the procedure and why it's an effective and appropriate procedure for her patients. Conversely, if we assume she already knows, we risk making a costly error in bypassing a potentially lucrative source of business.

4. Recognize that doctors care most about quality patient care. Many of our healthcare clients emphasize that money drives physician behavior. To the contrary, most physicians as well as most clinical healthcare professionals chose medicine because it provides the opportunity to deliver quality care and to help people. Certainly, we face instances where we need to recognize that doctors want to earn more money. But we need to always remember that doctors are healers. They care about their patients, and they care about information that will help them to better serve their patients.

5. Use easily understandable language. No one wants to wade through overly clinical, scientific or technical copy. Doctors—and their all-important office staff—need to be able to quickly and easily read your messages. So avoid the instinct to demonstrate your own medical IQ.

6. Pictures speak volumes. Whether you're developing direct-mail communications, medical advertising or collateral materials, use bold, attention-getting imagery. Also, physicians tend to be left-brain oriented. Therefore, they rely on logic, results and rationalism. Consequently, pictures take on even greater meaning. "If it's in the picture, it must be true." Thus, imagery works especially well in communicating with doctors to capture their attention and interest as well as to demonstrate, educate and illustrate.

7. Recognize the doctors' experience. To improve our ability to persuade physicians to change their behavior, we have to demonstrate a credible understanding of their reality. In practice, this means letting a radiologist know he is a pivotal player in healthcare decision-making, even if the patient never sees him. It means telling the doctor at an academic medical center that her research is valuable to the future of science and medicine. It means commiserating with a pediatrician about the time demands he faces given the volume of patients he has to serve. Once we show we understand their experience, they will listen to what we have to say.

8. Provide a relevant response mechanism. Unless you can offer every doctor a Mercedes-Benz, you're not likely to entice a doctor to take action using a conventional incentive—including food and hospitality offerings. Instead, focus your energy and financial resources on offering practical tools that help doctors to better serve their patients. We have had great success developing diagnostic screening tools, referral guides and reference materials. In our experience, these incentives are far more appealing to physicians than any bottle of wine ever could be.

9. Ask for their business. In theory, organizations market to physicians because doctors have the potential to either direct their patients to the organization doing the selling or take advantage of a service themselves, such as billing or another service for physicians. However, messages to doctors frequently skirt the issue and fail to actually ask for the business. Make it clear why you're communicating with the doctor. Spell it out! "Refer your patient." "Buy this equipment." "Prescribe this drug."

10. Remember the office staff. While we mentioned this audience in regard to keeping language accessible, the office and nursing staff deserve special attention. The staff can play a crucial role in many aspects of patient care, business operations and vendor relationships. In addition, they often serve as gatekeepers of communications aimed at doctors for whom they work. For these reasons, every word, every picture, every color needs to resonate not only with the doctor you want to reach but with the healthcare providers that surround him.

I have often joked that one day—after I retire from marketing communications—I'll go to medical school to become a doctor. It is a profession I admire and greatly respect. Until then, I will continue to employ these principles in the practical pursuits for which clients have hired our firm.

Daniel Weinbach is executive vice president and chief operating officer of Miami-based The Weinbach Group Inc., an integrated marketing communications firm that specializes in healthcare marketing. For more information, visit