The “C” in Patient Care Merits an “A” in Marketing

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By Patty Johnson

To earn an "A" in practice management, aim for a "C" in patient relations. That "C" could be translated in several ways--courtesy, compassion, congeniality--but the one that is often the most difficult to sustain is a major player in all types of relationships. Namely, communication.

As a marketing and management tool, good communication is crucial.

Talented practitioners can take all the known methods of advertising and public relations and use them to their advantage. And this is good. However, what many don't realize is that their absolute best source of attracting new business is already seated in their own waiting rooms.

Gold Mine: Satisfied Patients

Current clients are a gold mine of the most compelling type of endorsement--that of the satisfied customer. Whether your patients recommend you to their physician, their therapist, a neighbor, or their brother-in-law, this is a seal of approval without comparison. It just can't be bought.

To foster such an enthusiastic and heartfelt vote of confidence from patients, savvy practitioners have learned how to communicate at different points and on many levels. Many of these might sound simplistic. However, it may come as a surprise to some O&P professionals that what they assume is standard practice regarding their patient contacts isn't happening consistently--or not at the level needed by each patient.

In a nutshell, each patient and that person's caregivers should receive readily understandable explanations of all stages of treatment, including care of the prosthesis or orthosis and personal hygiene and skin protection. Moreover, they should be told about support groups existing for their particular condition, and of periodicals, area resources for such concerns as transportation, education, and employment, and outlets for sports, recreation, and leisure activities adapted to their special needs. O&P professionals and their administrative staffs should be a major source of problem solving for all aspects of each patient's physical disability. And practitioners who obviously don't have all the answers should at least direct patients to people who do.

Ignorance not only prompts fear, it also generates confusion, anger, defeatism, and other responses counterproductive to a full rehabilitation. The more people know about a condition, the faster they can come to terms with it. Sharing knowledge and insights is basic to involving the patient and family members in the selection of the most appropriate prosthesis or orthosis. Certainly, the physician diagnoses the condition and specifies the required remedy, often requesting the practitioner's suggestion as to which prosthesis or orthosis would be most beneficial. Thanks to continually developing technology, practitioners have multiple choices among upper- and lower-limb prosthetic components, as well as hundreds of options among orthoses and orthotic systems.

In the final analysis, however, it is the patient who will be wearing, and hopefully benefiting, from the chosen device. Once the practitioner has taken into account basic considerations, such as an amputee's age, physical condition, lifestyle, and employment/education status, it's time to get to what's important from the patient's point of view.

Take Time To Talk

Building in enough time in a patient's appointment for a relaxed conversation about goals and setbacks is vital to establishing a good patient relationship. The practitioner should also be aware that most people are apprehensive in such situations and could forget to ask questions important to them. Or, having received detailed care information in the office, might forget good portions of it before arriving home.

It's a good idea to suggest that patients write down their questions before coming in and take extensive notes during the session with the practitioner. Perhaps each facility treatment room should have a supply of notepads and pencils for patient use. Because people often have trouble remembering names, practitioners can give patients a business card at each visit, with the reminder to ask for them directly if a problem or concern develops. Incidentally, some of those cards may be passed on as referrals.

Provide Resources

At the same time, practitioners can, at little expense, prepare and distribute a series of booklets describing standard orthotic/prosthetic treatment, personal care, and guidelines to wearing the device prescribed. Even better, why not subscribe to and pass out copies of disability publications such as Challenge, produced by Disabled Sports USA, or inMotion, produced by the Amputee Coalition of America (ACA). Being able to read about others with similar conditions and obtain valuable resource information can have a tremendous impact on the patient's morale and goal to succeed.

Presenting information is only half of the picture, however. Truly effective practitioners have well-developed listening skills. Beyond determining what the patient requires, they can detect what the person wants to do in life. That could be riding a bicycle, driving to bingo, running a marathon, volunteering at a senior center, working in the garden, raising children, perhaps playing tennis or golf--or winning a Paralympic gold medal.

Since the 1980s, our staff has interviewed hundreds of kids and adults with physical disabilities, many of them amputees. It's no longer a surprise when a teenager or adult says they've been an amputee for years before learning of the existence of adaptive sports. The fact that there is a nonprofit umbrella organization devoted to introducing people of all ages to competitive and recreational sports has been an awakening for many. Suddenly doors open to healthy exercise, positive outlets for energy and competition, and a tremendous sense of accomplishment surrounded by people who experience the same obstacles. They're no longer an outsider, an oddity.

Disabled Sports USA has about 80 chapters across the US, all eager to get disabled kids and adults involved in athletic fun and outdoor pursuits. Nearly every mid- to large-sized community has a parks department that is increasingly affording inclusion to people with disabilities. Discover what exists in your city and let your patients know. Encourage their participation.

The Amputee Coalition of America is another excellent resource. Besides publishing a magazine on topics of interest to amputees, the ACA maintains a major resource center that people can access via the Internet ( www.amputee-coalition.org). It also hosts regional and national conventions that let people come together, sharing information, experiences, and mutual support. Tell your patients about these and other resources--support groups for spina bifida, stroke, cerebral palsy, and every other manner of disability. Be your patients' pipeline to solid, useful information, and they will be forever grateful.

That goes for O&P information too. Some practitioners don't want patients reading about new high-performance components because they may request them and still not be able to go skydiving or scale a mountain. Knowledge is never harmful. If nothing else, a patient wanting more information about a particular component or requesting to try something new can prompt a valuable discussion about that person's goals and objectives.

Nor does this responsibility relate only to young, active amputees. Although not everyone who loses a limb can hope to qualify for international sports competition, physical fitness and recreational pursuits are important to all. Special clinics across the country show amputees and people in wheelchairs how to play golf, go bowling, and participate in a wide range of leisure activities. These outlets are as vital to emotional health as they are to physical well-being.

Keep the Dream Alive

The last thing someone with a disability needs is a laundry list of what can't be done. They are aware enough of frustration and defeat. Tell them what is possible, what may be probable, and ultimately, what is wildly unlikely, unless they apply exceptional talent along with fierce drive and total commitment. And then see what happens.

Given the amazing nature of the human spirit, almost any goal is within reach--or at the very least a dream that will keep their hopes and spirits thriving for years to come. At the same time, the practitioner who opened those doors, who gave rise to the dream, will be praised and recommended to everyone they encounter.

And that, friends, is some pretty terrific marketing!

Patty Johnson is the executive vice president for Ron Sonntag Public Relations, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A major portion of her career has been devoted to public relations and marketing programs involving the prosthetics and orthotics field. Additionally, she and RSPR staff members were instrumental in the design, development, and production of three national magazines for a disability audience: Challenge, InMotion, and Amputee Golfer. Contact her at patty@rspr.com