Broadcast your brand: Find the patients you most want to treat

Letting patients know who you are and what your interests are can make you more memorable -- and cement loyalty.

By — Posted April 6, 2009

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When Terry Nicola, MD, was a student at Chicago's Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, he took up the sport of running. That turned out to be as critical a decision to his future as his choice of medical specialty.

After Dr. Nicola started his career as a orthopedic sports medicine physician, he continued running, competed in marathons and became an active member of various running clubs and organizations. As he started to gain recognition as a good runner, other runners looking for medical advice started turning to him.

Today, Dr. Nicola, director of sports medicine rehabilitation at the University of Illinois Medical Center, is known in Chicago as a runners' doctor. It's a brand he built over time, not by marketing, but by building relationships, and a reputation, with the people he most enjoyed working with. He wears that brand with pride and great satisfaction.

Many other physicians market themselves not only by specialty or quality of work, but also as a go-to person for patients with specific conditions, specific needs or even specific interests. This is what is known as branding.

Experts say branding yourself as the "fill-in-the-blank doctor" can help differentiate your practice and build patient loyalty. It might also be a way to seize opportunities outside of your practice.

Philippa Kennealy, MD, MPH, president of The Entrepreneurial MD, a Los Angeles-based business coaching consultancy, said every doctor should have a personal brand.

"The only way to stand out from all the other doctors around you is to consciously put some attention on what makes me different and unique," Dr. Kennealy said. Even in practices where productivity doesn't factor into salary, a physician's brand will help attract the patients he or she has a unique talent for treating, or would most enjoy working with.

In times of increasing numbers of people without insurance or with high-deductible plans, patients are going to be more picky about where and with whom they spend their money. Dr. Kennealy said it's more important than ever to make patients aware of "what they will find with you that they won't find from someone else."

You already have a brand

Whether you realize it or not, everything you do, inside and out of the practice, is projecting an image -- for better or worse. So the best way to manage your image is to consciously craft one that defines who you are and what you do.

Creating a brand is more than just being good at what you do, experts say. It's about crafting a message that targets a specific population. It won't resonate with everyone, and in fact, successful branding will weed out those for whom it doesn't.

"People are really matched up based on quality and values. And if patients are really matched with physicians to which there was a complete match, there is much more success and money long term," said Wendy Newman, founder of the Beverly Hills, Calif., consultancy firm Person-Centered Branding. "These are the people who will stay with them long term and refer people to them."

Dr. Nicola said creating his brand was likely the most nondeliberate thing he has done in his career -- but he credits his success to having that "running doctor" brand.

Even though Dr. Nicola's branding wasn't initially intentional, it presents a textbook example of how to start: Identify what you enjoy and what your strengths are, then build a career around that.

Newman said she advises clients to imagine the perfect scenario for their practices and the people in it. "Then you break it down into more manageable steps."

The first step should be determining what it is patients like about you, said Dr. Kennealy. This could involve formal or informal surveys or simply talking to patients to get their honest feedback.

Once you have identified your potential audience, go where they are, experts say.

It's not necessary to hire a marketing expert and spend thousands on advertising, Dr. Kennealy said. Instead focus on relationship building.

Early in his career, Dr. Nicola starting hanging out at health clubs and with running groups because he enjoyed it, but also because it positioned him to help people with running injuries -- which were what he most wanted to treat and knew the most about.

Dr. Nicola would strike up conversations with fellow runners and offer help with training, injury prevention or treatment. "I would spend a couple of hours" with a patient. "I sacrificed income to spend more time than the next person. To gain a reputation, you have to give up money."

Christopher Prater, MD, a family physician from Chattanooga, Tenn., also knows firsthand the ripple effect of a reputation. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Prater left his private practice to help open a medical facility at Orange Grove Center, a Chattanooga-based agency for adults and children with developmental disabilities. About a year and a half ago Dr. Prater left Orange Grove to open a separate medical facility with the same focus, in part, to help ease the load at Orange Grove.

The center has never needed to advertise, said Dr. Prater. In fact, there was a conscious decision not to advertise, because the patient load is already overwhelming, with people coming several hundred miles.

Dr. Prater does regularly speak to support groups for caregivers of people with developmental disabilities, a practice experts say other physicians can adapt.

Opportunities are plentiful, as there are support groups and community groups for just about any interest, hobby or population. Volunteering to speak to these groups or contributing to newsletters, for example, is an effective way of gaining an audience.

One-on-one contact is important, said Dr. Kennealy, but if you can find a way to leverage yourself with an audience of 20 or 200, "it's much more effective because it's much less effort from a marketing standpoint."

Word-of-mouth among patients is powerful, but so is word-of-mouth among physicians. As a specialist, a lot of Dr. Nicola's business is based on referrals. Feedback from the patient to the referring physician helps that physician keep Dr. Nicola in mind when another patient with a running injury needs a sports medicine specialist.

Medical conventions also offer a place where physicians can address their peers and speak about particular areas of expertise.

But face-to-face networking isn't always an option, especially if you're seeking recognition outside of your practice or with a national audience. Dr. Kennealy said the first step to becoming very famous is to become "slightly famous" by establishing yourself as an expert on a particular topic through platforms including newspapers, blogs and social networking groups.

Dr. Prater has done this by writing about delivering primary care to the developmentally disabled. He regularly gets calls from physicians across the country who regard him as an expert.

Bryan Vartabedian, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Texas Children's Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, has created a brand as an author and speaker on parenting and children's health. "You have to be your own brand. Your practice can't be your brand."

Creating a brand can be rewarding, but not sticking to your expressed core values can backfire, said Newman.

Newman said seeing physicians fail to stick with their stated brand identity taught her the importance of creating "authentic brands" based on who the individual is, not on what will be the most lucrative market.

Physicians often find themselves with a reputation and brand they never bargained for. "People will lapse into a default brand," Dr. Kennealy said.

"But if you are conscious and aware of it you will set your intentions of what you want the new brand to look like. And then you have to really pay attention to deliver on that intentional promise," she said.

Newman said even complaints can be turned into an opportunity. "There is a market for anything." So even if some patients may not like your practice style, that same style can be a selling point to other patients. Your job is to find them.

Whether you are building or repairing a brand, consistency is key, experts say.

It's been nearly 30 years since Dr. Nicola established his practice by immersing himself in the local running community, and he remains active.

He is an elected member of the board of the Chicago Area Runners Assn., the area's largest running group. Over the years, he has taken up several other sports, so he can provide firsthand knowledge to runners seeking advice on cross-training.

"You always want to know more than the next guy," Dr. Nicola said.

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Where to build a brand

You've identified your audience, but where do you find it? Branding experts say physicians need to go wherever it is their target audience is going for information. Experts say aligning yourself with these communities by either volunteering, running educational talks or contributing to newsletters and publications can help you broadcast your brand and build a reputation.

Athletes: Local school teams; sports organizations and clubs; fitness gyms; online blogs and message boards for participants of specific sports

Children with special needs: Parenting groups; church organizations; support groups for caregivers of children with special needs; blogs and message boards.

Seniors: Community groups and clubs; church groups; senior centers; assisted-living facilities; publications geared towards seniors.

People with chronic diseases: Local employers; union halls; support groups; local nonprofit organizations; online message boards and blogs

Source: Philippa Kennealy, MD, president of The Entrepreneurial MD; Wendy Newman, founder of Person-Centered Branding; and others

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Online opportunities

When Kevin Pho, MD, an internist from Nashua, N.H., started his blog in 2004, he didn't think about it as creating a brand. Five years later, KevinMD is one of the most popular medical blogs, featured regularly on TV and in print news.

Sreenath Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs and journalism professor at Columbia University in New York, said it's in every physician's interest to build a higher profile. Patients want to know as much as possible about their doctors, and the first place many turn is the Web.

Dr. Pho said the success of his blog has been twofold. It gained him national attention as an opinion-maker and it has had an impact locally.

"There is a subset of the population who want a tech-savvy doctor. A lot of patients search for health information via Google and are very Internet savvy. They have grown up on Facebook and MySpace and blogging, and having a doctor who is just as tech-savvy, some patients find that appealing," he said.

Physicians can start with a social networking site, then add a Web site, blog or Web radio program.

"It's all a matter of slow and steady; building a reputation," Sreenivasan said. He is a strong believer in the "long-tail effect" -- it's not about the audience today, but the cumulative archive that builds up a long-term, loyal audience.

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