Empower Your Practice

Journal for Practice Managers

Patients as Customers: A More Effective Approach to Medical Practice Management (part 2)

Keith Pollard
September 18, 2017
This is a 2nd part of interview (1st part is here) with Keith Pollard, CEO of Intuition Communication, about the best ways for private doctors to improve their medical practice management and attract more patients. Here we discuss a range of important healthcare topics for general practitioners and practice managers alike, helping you to make the most out of your medical practice management.

London remains a major magnet for medical tourism, but how does the rest of the country compare? Private practices are dotted all over around the country, albeit in a much lower concentration. Do they get any benefit from medical tourism such that they should be reorienting their practice management approach or is their market more local?

It’s really the case that the focus is central London. There are a few specialist centres around the country, but it’s really about London rather than Manchester or Birmingham. London has the best shops catering to the Gulf market and it has a very positive destination image. They’ve heard of the city, they’ve been to London and they have everything they want.

The current political environment is somewhat unpredictable with Brexit going on and the pound fluctuating. Things are going on in other countries as well, but how do you think private medical practice management will be affected by all these political and economic factors that have arisen since the referendum?

I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s great news. It won’t improve things. However, the UK is now, theoretically, a cheaper healthcare destination. I can’t say it’s had any significant impact so far. Regarding Brexit,

the biggest problem and major challenge for the healthcare sector, both private and NHS, is staffing.

This might not affect private practices, but there’s a proportion of the UK’s healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses and support staff like physiotherapists, who are EU nationals. We are going to have a major staffing problem. We already had a problem and it’s become 5 times worse.

We’re not going to be able to source staff from countries like Croatia and Romania. Instead, we’re going to have to ask India and other current or former Commonwealth countries. Or we could look to the Philippines, which is supplying a phenomenal amount of care home support and other staff at the moment. We will have to recruit staff from somewhere.

What do the most successful private practices tend to have in common when it comes to attracting patients and keeping hold of them?

Purely and simply, it’s their customer focus. It’s their marketing orientation, because they’re running a business. You need to realise you’re running a business which has customers, so what can you do to improve the customer experience?

On the flip side, what are the most common mistakes made in medical practice management while they’re trying to market their practice to new patients?

The missed opportunity is failing to exploit past patients by means of word-of-mouth, reviews and testimonials. With a lack of marketing follow-up and contact after treatment they don’t create more patients out of existing patients.

I’ve never really seen anyone who puts any effort into doing it, and it strikes me as a crazy omission.

I don’t think many people go into the healthcare sector from other commercial business sectors. It is a fairly insular business where people who start in healthcare stay in healthcare. It’s not often we get people coming in from outside. For example, no one is coming in from a car retailer where they think of servicing customers and suggesting that healthcare adopts this approach. No one ever really thinks of it in this way.

It seems like most private practices and hospitals haven’t taken any steps to make the most of satisfied patients by keeping them in the loop. Is there anything specific they should be doing, like sending out correspondence? What could they change about their medical practice management that would be more effective than anything else?

All they do now once you’ve been treated is they’ll ask you to fill out a patient satisfaction questionnaire form. This will usually come out with a 90% plus approval rating because it’s just a box ticking exercise and doesn’t really give you any differentiation. What they haven’t done is really understand what actually made a difference in a patient/customer journey or how they could improve it.

These ordinary kinds of questionnaires don’t differentiate your private practice from the one down the road, so what you’ve got to do is find out what really gave a patient a stand-out experience. Private doctors should be thinking about how they can build on and develop this.

As an example, if you went and had an operation at a BMI, Nuffield, Spire or Ramsay hospital, you could probably put any company’s name on the front door. It wouldn’t be any different as there’s no brand differentiation. What makes a BMI hospital experience different from a Nuffield one? I have no idea!

What advice would you give to a private practice that’s struggling to differentiate itself from its competitors?

I would always tell a client to ask their customers.

One of the ways you could find out what makes you different is to go out into the waiting room and ask. You could ask people why they came to your particular practice, what attracted them to it, and what are the things they value most when it comes to the service the practice provides.

It’s difficult for patients to make comparisons in private healthcare because they may have only gone to one place, but the way to work out what makes your private practice better than others is to ask people what they think. If they can’t come up with anything, then you’ve got to have a rethink, but they might come up with some ideas and you’ll think “I never realised that!”

The difficulty is always that they don’t have enough opportunity to compare because it’s not as though they’re going to see a private doctor every week. They often have just one view that’s formed because of that one practice.

When practice managers use these closed questionnaires you’ve mentioned, it’s clearly insufficient. Do you think the use of a questionnaire with more open questions would be something worth pursuing for private practices, or do you think patients would see an empty space and just ignore it?

Yes, I think they would just ignore it. What you need to do is sit down with some past patients and have a conversation with them. This is how you’ll get them to give you the kind of feedback you need. It doesn’t have to be too formal, so you could just ask in the waiting room. You’re just trying to get some kind of understanding of how they think.

As we’ve discussed, a huge level of competition exists in the private healthcare market, mostly in London. Many NHS doctors want to come over to the private sector and practice managers are working with them to open new private practices. What are the most important factors these prospective private doctors and their medical practice management colleagues should be thinking about before they open their clinics?

They need to consider what kind of patient or customer they want to attract. Healthcare is a very complicated area, and the people who are successful are those who are very good at specific things. They sell their expertise by saying “I am the best person at this. I’m not just an orthopaedic surgeon, I am THE BEST orthopaedic surgeon in London for cartilage reconstruction”.

You have to be very specific as people do have specific needs. Think about the kind of patient you want to attract. Also, consider the competitors you’ve got to beat and what they’re doing to generate business for their particular kind of customer.

Then you think about what’s going to make you different and tell the patient what makes you better than the other options out there.

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