Like any other type of business, medical and dental practices depend on marketing to bring in a steady flow of customers (and income). In the not-too-distant past, advertising in the telephone book was essential, and healthcare professionals also relied on referrals from satisfied patients to bring new patients into their office. While word of mouth is still the best marketing tool, today's practitioners now have access to a wide range of high-tech tools to spread the word about their practices.

A good marketing plan need not be complicated or costly. For the most part, positive publicity starts within the practice walls, so getting started is simple. After that, print and electronic media can provide excellent promotional tools.

Here are some basics for any healthcare practice:

In the office

o   Provide a clean, cheerful waiting area. Stained carpeting and a film of dust on the furniture can send the wrong message about practice standards.

o   Train staff to be positive, professional and friendly. No news spreads faster than tales of a rude receptionist or cold-mannered nurse. This brand of advertising can result in lost revenue and a tarnished public image. To this end, address inappropriate behavior by staff members directly and without delay.

o   Strive to provide accessible office hours. Given that many patients have full-time jobs, physicians who operate strictly on a 9-to-5 basis may be at a disadvantage. Solo practitioners, for example, might consider starting office hours at noon and staying open until 7 pm one or two days a week. Group practices might alternate rotations with colleagues to offer extended coverage.

o   Make waiting time less painful. Although every practice should try to cut down time spent in the waiting room, the fact is that some wait time is inevitable. Make it as pleasant as possible by offering Wi-Fi access1 and current reading materials. If your patients include children, or if children are likely to accompany their parents, consider providing a play area or simple toys to keep kids entertained and quiet.

Make the news

o   Create a media kit. A media or press kit is a collection of print and/or audiovisual material promoting a particular product, service or individual. Target sectors include newspapers, television, radio, periodicals, community groups and any other business, group or organization that might generate business. A media kit for a medical practice might include: the healthcare provider's biography, highlighting education, credentials, awards and professional experience; brochures or fact sheets on the practice; information pertaining to the specialty (e.g. an FAQ on breast health, screening tests for prostate cancer, prevention of gum disease); news articles featuring the practice or physician; business cards, contact numbers, and Web and e-mail addresses; and CDs presenting the practice's history, services and accomplishments.

o   Contact local newspapers. Any positive development in the life of a practice – office relocation or expansion, new hires, awards or recognitions, free screenings, special events (e.g. an open house) – merits area press coverage. A public relations professional will know the standard procedures, but do-it-yourselfers should get in touch with the appropriate department editors for guidance. Health/science, features, local/regional and life-style editors typically are the best bets.

o   Paid ads, particularly useful for new practices and relocation, are also an option. In this case, someone in the newspaper's sales division can help with the process.

o   Write a press release. Submitting a well-written announcement or news story, particularly via e-mail, often works more effectively than a telephone call. Busy editors appreciate not having to dig for story details, and a solid press release can do half their job for them. When putting a release together, observe the following guidelines:

o   Find an angle. A story about a new piece of medical equipment, for instance, is more interesting when it leads off with an unusual detail. Is the machine the only one in the area? Does it incorporate cutting-edge technology? Does it represent a huge cost savings for patients? In short, turn a humdrum announcement into real news.

o   Grab the reader's interest. Provide important details in the headline and first couple of sentences, with supplemental details following the hard information.

o   Write in a "media" style. Announcements slated for a particular newspaper, for instance, should follow that publication's format. Use published articles in the same vein as your story for models.

o   Use direct quotes. The words of a real person lend both human interest and credibility to a press release.

o   Be truthful and objective. Go with the facts and avoid injecting personal opinion. Remember, this is a news story, not an editorial. Avoid exaggeration, overstatement and emotional language.

o   Shun medical jargon. Unless the press release is headed for a scholarly journal, use laymen's terms to describe equipment, procedures, job functions, etc. Otherwise, readers may give up before they finish the story.

o   End with a boilerplate. This is simply a short paragraph with information about services, staff and corporate/personal history.

o   Don’t forget the telephone book. Don't underestimate the power of classified ads, even in the digital age. Phone book ads allow medical professionals to target a particular market – people who are looking for someone who specializes in their illness or medical complaint.

Using the Internet

o   Invest in the Internet. Any medical professional trying to grow a practice should own a website to effectively market their services. With more and more people using the Internet to research products and services (and to read their newspapers), overlooking this cyber-tool would be foolhardy. The fees for using a Web host – a company that operates the site – can run as little as a couple dollars a month. Web designer services, however, cost more, from a few hundred dollars at the low end, up into the thousands. The more capabilities the site possesses, the higher the price. Remember the old adage – "You get what you pay for."  In addition to providing general information about a medical practice, a Web site allows you to post press releases, e-zine articles, news updates, medical information, blogs, testimonials, videos, links to other sites and much more.

o   Get into the social networking scene. Venues such as Facebook® and LinkedIn® are drawing thousands of visitors every day — with businesses of every type putting up pages. As a marketing tool, social networking can be inexpensive, convenient and personalized. At the very least, set up a Facebook page for your practice to be your base of operations in the social world. As with your website, it’s important to keep your Facebook page maintained and updated often with fresh material.

Get help from professionals

The strategies listed above represent only a fraction of the methods available to promote healthcare practices. Those who find the prospect of marketing intimidating may want to hire a professional marketing/PR consultant. Their job is to provide as much positive exposure for their clients as possible – from ad placement and media opportunities, to publicity (such as speaking engagements) in the community at large.

Quality marketing firms or consultants should possess:

o   A solid performance history in healthcare disciplines

o   An extensive network of electronic-media relationships

o   A good relationship with area journalists and news personnel

o   Professional-level materials, including media kits, brochures, press releases, digital products, etc. Always ask to see samples.

For more guidance on the business side of running your healthcare practice, consult a Certified Medical Banker2 from Nevada State Bank, a professional trained to address the challenges and opportunities of healthcare professionals. Stop by any branch or call 702-855-4596.

1. Click here for a NevadaSmallBusiness.com article on safer ways to provide Wi-Fi to customers.

2. Certified by Nevada State Bank

The information provided is presented for general informational purposes only and does not constitute tax, legal or business advice. Any views expressed in this article may not necessarily be those of Nevada State Bank, a division of ZB, N.A.