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Barbara Webster, DO (left), goes over questions with prospective patient Mona Myers at the first Doc Shop, which focused on obstetrics and gynecology. The sponsoring Texas hospital plans seven more events for this year and says expanded doctor-patient matchups could include pediatricians and other primary care specialists. Photo courtesy Star-Telegram / Jon P. Uzzel

"Speed dating" matches physicians, patients

A Texas hospital uses the matchmaking model as an informal way for both parties to check out compatibility before entering a doctor-patient relationship.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Feb. 8, 2010

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Ob-gyn Emily Emmet, MD, was sitting at a table in a room at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford when a teenager sat down to talk. The young woman wondered: Could Dr. Emmet be the right physician to perform her first pelvic exam?

After five minutes, the conversation ended.

That's because Mandy Forbus, senior marketing specialist at the Dallas-Fort Worth area hospital, had signaled it was time for the teen, and other potential patients, to move to another table and talk with another doctor.

If Doc Shop -- a program Texas Health HEB launched in fall 2009 to connect patients with obstetrician-gynecologists -- sounds like speed dating, it's because it was modeled on the matchmaking process that lets singles meet a significant number of potential dates in a short period.

The hospital's first event took place on Sept. 24, 2009. Two others have been held since, and seven are scheduled for 2010. The program has been successful enough that the hospital is expanding it to include pediatricians, with longer-term plans to include other primary care specialists.

Physicians and those involved in planning the events believe the program is best suited for primary care doctors, where matching personalities for a long-term relationship can be particularly important.

Doc Shop is the brainchild of Forbus, who said Texas Health needed a low-cost way to drive patients to affiliated physicians.

It involves setting aside a room for two 30-minute sessions over the lunch hour. About five or six physicians sit at tables while a dozen or so potential patients rotate through. Every five minutes, Forbus signals patients to move to the next doctor. There is no cost to patients, and doctors do not get paid for their time.

"It's good marketing for [the physicians]. It's one hour of their time, and they can get three or four new patients," Forbes said. "For one hour, that's pretty good."

Participating physicians say the event is a welcome addition to other marketing efforts, such as magazine ads or information on their Web sites. Because the patients who attend are actively looking for health care services, they are likely to make an appointment with at least one physician they meet.

The events have been promoted through YouTube videos, Twitter updates and various hospital e-mail newsletters. Flyers also were hung on bulletin boards at local businesses.

"When they first floated the idea, we were all a little unsure of it," said Dr. Emmet. "But it is a good way to get our name out there and reach some new patients." She has gained several new patients from these events.

But the benefit goes beyond the patients they meet face-to-face, participants say. Word of mouth has long been a common way for patients to find new physicians, and successful matches spread the word about their new physicians to friends and relatives.

Some of the doctors will get one new patient from the speed-dating event and then gain three or four of that person's friends as patients, Forbus said.

No other institutions are known to use the speed-dating model for this purpose, although events aimed at allowing patients and physicians to meet each other in a casual situation are not uncommon. For example, Manisha Parikh, MD, a staff obstetrician-gynecologist who has attended two of the events at Texas Health, has been to physician-patient mixers at other institutions. But she said there wasn't much mixing.

"Doctors talked to other doctors," Dr. Parikh said. "It was hard to mingle with each other."

While Doc Shop allows patients to find a physician who suits them, it is also an opportunity for doctors to do the same. Physicians can meet and discuss their practice styles with potential patients, answer questions, and, if appropriate, guide them to other doctors who may be a better match.

For example, Dr. Emmet met one woman who wanted a physician who would incorporate complementary and alternative medicine, which is not her area of expertise. Barbara Webster, DO, a staff ob-gyn, spoke with an 80-year-old woman with multiple health problems who the doctor felt really needed to be seen by an internist, family physician or geriatrician, along with other subspecialists.

"It's a lot better to find out early that maybe this is not going to be a good fit for either of us," Dr. Emmet said.

Physicians who have not participated in the program say that while it looks like a good opportunity for building a practice base, five minutes may not be enough time to truly assess if a physician and patient match.

For example, Oscar "Skip" Brown, MD, a pediatrician in Longview, Texas, meets future parents during a 30-minute prenatal visit for which there is no charge.

"I think it is time well spent for me and the mom and dad," said Dr. Brown, who is also chair of the Texas Medical Assn.'s Council on Socioeconomics.

Those who have participated in the speed matching say one of the bigger challenges is to keep patients focused on the purpose, which is to pick a physician to see at a later date. Some show up with medical records seeking expert opinion.

"Most want to bring up personal information," Dr. Webster said. "We need to make it more clear to the public what this is all about."

Organizers are responding by revising the information provided to patients when they register.

After Dr. Emmet finished her conversation with the teenager asking about her first pelvic exam, a 70-year-old woman was next. She wanted to know if she and Dr. Emmet had similar feelings about hormone therapy. How long were appointments? And how long would she spend in the waiting room?

After another five minutes of conversation, Forbus signaled that time was up, and the patients changed tables.

Dr. Emmet never saw the teenager again. But the other woman later made an appointment for a well exam.

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