In this article, our Managing Director Jane Braithwaite turns troubleshooter to answer independent practitioners’ frequently asked questions on business matters. Today she is giving advice to help you take advantage of the self-pay boom. This article was originally written for Independent Practitioners Today.
There are so many patients on NHS waiting lists and many of these are considering self-pay private treatment. How do I attract them to my practice?
A deeply concerning impact of Covid has been the increase in NHS waiting lists for healthcare treatment and this is generating growth in the number of patients in the UK opting for self-pay private treatment. Reports suggest a 30% increase in self-pay treatment in April 2020 compared to pre-Covid levels. It was reported in Independent Practitioner Today in October 2021 that self-pay patients amounted to one-third of all private hospital activity for the first time. When planning to access private care, a self-pay patient needs advice from a knowledgeable and responsible source, regarding which hospital and which consultant to see and this advice would often be offered by their GP.
But a significant impact of Covid has been the increased pressure on GP services throughout the UK. And one of the most worrying impacts for patients has been their inability to make an appointment with their GP, either face to face or online. In recent months, the Government has been pushing GPs to make more face-to-face appointments available and, in October, they announced a major NHS drive to improve access for patients.
The Government has promised an additional £250m extra for GP practices to enable these improvements. GPs will need to extend their opening hours and offer walk-in appointments to access these additional funds. In the short term, though, we can assume that there are an increasing number of individuals in the UK who are looking for private healthcare. If you are a consultant in private practice who is keen to provide support to self-pay patients, then you will want to ensure they are able to find out about you and the services and treatments you offer. I know a lot of doctors feel uncomfortable with the concept of marketing and, to overcome this concern, I prefer to talk about communications. Your communications with existing and potential patients and potential referrers will increase your opportunities to see additional private patients.
The starting point for any marketing plan is to clarify your target audience. Think about:
The treatments you offer;
Who is your audience;
Who is your ideal patient.
Think about age, sex, geography and lifestyle. By having a clear definition of your audience, you can make good decisions about how to reach your target patients.
How do patients find a doctor to treat them?
As the pressure on GPs is currently significant, patients may be using other routes to find their treatment: asking friends and family. Word-of-mouth referrals and recommendations are hugely valuable to all doctors working in private practice and a positive way to increase the number of patients that you treat. Every patient you have seen in the past is a potential source of referrals for you. We also know that potential patients will do their due diligence before booking an appointment with you to validate the recommendation they have been offered and to check that you are the right doctor for them. The easiest way for them to do so is performing a Google search on your name and the results of this search are what we refer to as your ‘online reputation’. Your potential patients will be checking out your ‘online reputation’ prior to booking an appointment with you, so I recommend you regularly check your online profile and ensure it provides an accurate and positive representation of you and your practice. A very basic, but often overlooked, starting point is to ensure that your contact details are correct on all websites where your profile is published. Ideally, you should include the name of your medical PA – as this reassures patients that your practice is professionally set-up – a phone number that is not a mobile and an email address with your own domain and not a Gmail address.
Appropriate content. It is also important to check that the content on each website is appropriate, considering who the audience will be. Most profiles are aimed at potential patients and yet many doctors write their profiles with their medical colleagues in mind, listing their CV and medical education.
A patient wants to know if you are the right doctor for them.
Do you treat their condition?
Do you understand their symptoms?
Do you offer the right type of care?
So your profile needs to be written to reassure the patient that you are the right doctor and ensure they follow through to book an appointment to see you.
One great asset that is totally free is your own personal profile on private hospital websites where you practise. Each private hospital group has a directory of consultants on its website and your profile will be featured here for potential patients to review. It is really important to ensure that your profile is up to date and accurate. You should also make sure you list all treatments that you offer. When a patient visits the hospital website, they will be looking for a particular treatment and you want to make sure your name comes up as a potential consultant in the search results. The word ‘branding’ may sound like marketing jargon and so we encourage you to think about it in terms of your identity. You want to create a consistent online identity and ideally every mention of your name and your practice should have that same identity. This should also extend to your stationery, business cards, email signature and letterheads. All your photos must also be professional and should look consistent.
First impressions count
Your website is the most important and valuable aspect of your online profile, as you are completely in control of the content and the look and feel. Visitors to your website will decide in the first 30 seconds whether your website is relevant to them and so first impressions are important. The look and feel of your website, the branding, your logo and the colour palette will have a significant impact on your visitor’s decision to stay or leave. Once you have convinced the visitor to stay on your website, you need to ensure it is easy for them to find the information they are looking for and, most importantly, you need a strong call to action. Your ideal call to action is to encourage your visitor to book an appointment with you either via phone, email or ideally online. Online booking is common in many industries and is growing in popularity in private healthcare. In the next couple of years, we expect to see this become the norm and it is important that you implement an online booking system to avoid being left behind. An alternative call to action is to ask your website visitors to sign up to receive your regular newsletter.
A patient newsletter on a monthly or quarterly basis is an effective way to stay connected with your growing community of patients and doing so is likely to increase word-of-mouth referrals, as patients will remember to mention you to friends and family. Please ensure that your newsletters are managed in a manner that complies with the General Data Protection Regulations, though. All doctors should be encouraging patients to leave reviews about their practice, as these are incredibly powerful to prospective patients looking to book with you. It is human nature to be influenced by others and reading your previous patients reviews are very reassuring. There are several platforms for gathering reviews that you can choose to use and you may decide to use more than one, but it is certainly vital to be using at least one. You should also promote your patient reviews on your own website.
Social media gives you the opportunity to communicate regularly with your patients and potential patients and, as with your website, you are completely in control of the content. Ideally, your social media will create engagement with your patients and so as well as posting relevant content, it is important that you respond and engage with your community. The choice of social media platform you use should depend on your target audience and the type of content that will appeal to them. Whichever platforms you choose, you should ensure consistent branding across your social media presence and plan regular updates to avoid a social media graveyard where nothing has been posted for several months. Finally, if you are willing to invest in your marketing, you may be interested in using Google AdWords and Pay Per Click (PPC). This is paid advertising that you can set up to target your potential patients when they search on your chosen search terms. These campaigns can deliver remarkably successful results.