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The best ways to market your practice at local events

A column about keeping your practice in good health

By — Posted May 14, 2012.

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For some medical practices, exhibiting at a summer festival, health fair or business expo can be a chance to say hello to the community — and get new patients.

The key, medical marketing experts say, is to choose the right event, think about how to engage attendees and set realistic expectations about what benefits will be gained. The events can be a lot of fun but take creativity to make them work.

“It’s really great for the doctors to get out there, but you have to think it through,” said Peggy C. Frank, who owns Frank Public Relations Worldwide based in Westlake Village, Calif., and works with several medical groups and hospitals.

The first step when considering the many events being offered is to determine whether the practice will reach its intended market. For example, Gregory DuBose, a brand architect with the Bella Group in Jupiter, Fla., works with the Medical Center of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla.. The three-physician group, with two locations, provides primary care, urgent care and occupational medicine to a broad patient population. To reach children younger than 13 and their parents, the practice comes to children’s health fairs. To connect to Spanish speakers, it exhibits at Latin American cultural festivals.

“We love cultural festivals,” DuBose said. “They have a nice family atmosphere. We get to show that we have bilingual staff members.”

The next step is to attract people to the booth. Brochures about the practice should be standard, but staff members need to be creative in getting out information. The events are full of distractions, and the practice will have to compete for attention.

Taking people’s blood pressure or making some other minor medical assessment may engage passers-by. “You don’t want to operate on somebody in the middle of the festival, but measuring blood pressure or something else noninvasive would be good,” said Gail Bower, president of Bower & Co. Consulting in Philadelphia, whose business includes marketing for festivals. “People want information that will be valuable to them after the event.”

Ethics experts advise physicians to follow up with patients if an on-site test reveals abnormalities, and that participation at a fair or festival be contingent on organizers providing physicians with information to give to patients on local health and social services programs.

If it’s an outdoor event, water bowls for dogs may attract people and make them linger while their pup takes a drink. A free snack, preferably a healthy one, or a cold bottle of water may make people pause and take a look. Freebies, such as refrigerator magnets, pillboxes or some other tchotchke bearing the practice’s name and contact details, may attract attention. The Medical Center of the Palm Beaches said giving yo-yos to children has been quite popular.

Then, once people are at the booth, the next strategy is to get their contact information so the practice can follow up with a note or phone call. Jessica Davis, MD, a Stillwater, N.Y., family physician who exhibits at natural family festivals and baby expos to lure new mothers, said she gets visitors’ email addresses in exchange for a chance to win a parenting book or diaper rash cream.

Physicians who market their practices at fairs say good boundaries are important to avoid legal problems that may result from giving medical information in an informal setting. Dr. Davis is occasionally asked for detailed medical advice at a fair. She usually responds that answering would require more time than is available and that those asking should make an appointment. “It’s pretty easy for me to deflect those questions,” she said.

People who advise medical practices say physicians should have realistic expectations. It may take several appearances to draw new patients. For example, Dr. Davis met one current patient at a festival when the patient was newly pregnant, but she didn’t make her first appointment until her child was 5 months old.

Name recognition can pay off in indirect ways. Health-related businesses that exhibited at the same shows as Dr. Davis have referred patients to her. Appearing at a public event may be perceived as a service to the community, and that may build a practice’s reputation and improve relationships with established patients.

“Being visible doesn’t necessarily corollate to gaining a new patient,” Frank said. “But it could help with retention, and it’s important for word of mouth.”

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