To stay top-of-mind with referral sources and patients, the best O&P practices constantly tell their stories and establish themselves as experts in their communities. Getting to that point can be challenging, O&P marketing experts say.
“Back in the day, you just had to put your ad in the yellow pages, and the patients just came,”says Elizabeth Mansfield, vice president at Clinical Education Concepts, headquartered in Baiting
Hollow, New York. “Those days are over.”
Two of the toughest obstacles for effective O&P marketing: How to find the time and energy to do it and how to ensure, in today’s information-filled world, that your marketing efforts are reaching the people your practice needs the most.
Of those two challenges, finding the time for marketing is usually the most difficult. Most owners are also practitioners who are often more focused on their patients and keeping the business afloat.
“Practitioners are very, very busy,” says Patty Johnson, president of Ron Sonntag Public Relations, headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “They are busy managing their employees and contracts and seeing patients. It’s difficult to add that marketing element into their workday.”
To make it even harder, growing requirements for documentation and reimbursement claims have stretched employee time even thinner.
“It’s very hard, especially in healthcare now, to meet all of the demands placed upon you that have nothing to do with the care that you actually provide,” Mansfield says. “If you need three people to process claims and get approvals and get the bills paid, how do you add ‘full-time marketing person’ to that role?”
While it is difficult, it is more dangerous not to market yourself, the experts say. Practices can’t grow if they can’t attract a steady stream of referral sources and patients. O&P businesses need to find a way to attract patients with the time and budget they have.
“Marketing is an investment and it’s an investment in time primarily and resources secondarily,” Mansfield says. “You have to figure out how to spend your time in a way that will serve you in the long-term. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.”
DO YOUR BEST WITH WHAT YOU HAVE
Marketing doesn’t always have to be a big investment in time or resources, the experts say. However, it does need to be a consistent effort.
Johnson says that when practices are just starting out, they should start with “foundation marketing”—the basics of what every practice should have. This includes a professional logo and brand, a website that will introduce your practice and tell your story, a well-designed brochure that can be handed out to referral sources and patients, and a social media presence. She says practices should have that as a marketing base, and then can grow from there.
“I say to companies to stay in your lane and let’s look at what’s best for you and kick off what you can manage,” she says.
Social media is important, the experts say, but it should be done correctly.
Practices do not need to be on every social media platform, but when they are on a platform, Mansfield says they should post consistently so those in the community can become invested in their stories. Practices should stick to the platforms they are most comfortable with.
“Marketing works well if you are authentic,” Mansfield says. “If you are on a social media platform you are not comfortable with, and can’t keep up with it, then your content is not authentic. Just because a tool is there doesn’t mean you have to use it. Use what you are good at and passionate about and use well.”
She suggests that practices divide up social media platforms if necessary. Someone who is good at video, for instance, might be better posting to Instagram or TikTok, while those better at writing and photography might be better at Facebook or Twitter.
TELL YOUR STORIES (AND LET YOUR PATIENTS TELL THEM TOO)
Practitioners need to recognize their practice is full of inspiring and interesting stories. Perhaps there is a man who lost his leg in a traumatic accident and is able to walk again thanks to your prosthetic care. Or maybe there’s an adorable baby whose skull deformity is fixed by wearing a cranial remolding helmet. These types of stories make the biggest impact on O&P marketing.
“It’s rewarding to tell the story of someone who has been able to survive a vascular amputation and they are back to volunteering at the library or playing with their grandkids,” Johnson says. “There are so many beautiful stories that some people in O&P think are commonplace.”
One of the keys to doing this type of marketing best is to document patient progress to show the extent of the change. Practitioners should be thinking of potential marketing even as treatment is just starting. A reader is more likely to feel an impact if they can see the full journey a patient has gone through, not just the end result, Mansfield says.
“One thing that practices tend to forget is that there is always a before and after,” she says. “They tend to take pictures after, but they often forget to document before treatment starts.”
She added that these kinds of images make more of an impact than focusing on the technical side of O&P.
“Sometimes practices tend to focus on marketing the device over the people,” she says. “If they share a picture of a socket, even if it’s a gorgeous socket, there’s not a lot I can relate to as a non-amputee.”
Even better than you telling your patients’ stories is letting your patients tell their stories to the world. If they feel comfortable, encourage them to share their progress on social media and tag your practice on those platforms. Tell them you’d appreciate it if they would let their referring physicians know how they are improving. Give them shirts with your company logo so others can see them as they are out and about in the world.
“If you have good testimonials from customers, put them on your website,” Johnson advises.
While some patients are excited to share, others may be a bit more reluctant. Johnson says it helps to talk to them and tell them about the impact they can make.
“We tell them about how their story can help educate other people who are going through a similar situation,” Johnson says. “Many people are happy to tell their story if they think it will help others.”
MAKE TARGETED, DATA-DRIVEN DECISIONS
Most O&P practices don’t have the time or the money to have large advertising campaigns that may or may not reach the intended audience.
Instead, the experts say, it is wiser for practices to determine their target audience—potential patients or referral sources—and focus their efforts on attracting those people.
“I’m not a fan of spending money on mass media,” Johnson says. “This is a narrow and targeted group of people you are trying to attract. If they don’t have an amputation or need an orthosis, they are not going to be your customer.”
Instead, Johnson says, practices should try to target those who are most likely to be customers.
“On social media, you can advertise and utilize key words like diabetes and amputation or a specific prosthesis, and you can target locally for your area,” she says. Google advertising can also be hyper-focused in this way.
This same kind of targeted focus should also be put in place when finding referral sources, says Ryan Ball, director of VGM Market Data, headquartered in Waterloo, Iowa. O&P practices should do their research, or have others do the research, to figure out the best potential referral sources in their area. Then they should start reaching out to those people regularly. Focusing on those physicians and institutions can help the practice grow faster with less time than constantly reaching out to every potential referral source.
“I had a boss tell me once that all customers are equal, but some are more equal than others,” Ball says. “You have to define the folks most important to your business in the long-term.”
Focusing on those referral sources saves you time while having the biggest potential impact on your business.
“Having that intelligence and knowing where you need to go for the biggest opportunities is huge,” he says. “Being able to shrink that playing field down is half the battle.”
For key physicians, O&P practice owners should make themselves known early and often until their relationship is cemented.
“There are obviously folks in the market that are worth more to your business than others,” Ball says. “Maybe those key doctors get a visit once a month for the first six months.”
THE DOWNFALL OF COMPLACENCY
For established, busy practices, it can become easy to rely on trusted referral sources without putting any effort into keeping the relationship.
That’s a mistake, Ball says. It’s important to keep track of the changes in your O&P community and know how they might impact your business. A new O&P practice might woo some of your referral sources away. A closing orthopedic surgery practice that was a major referral source could impact your bottom line. A new surgery practice might send its referrals another way if your practice never reaches out.
“There’s always new players coming into the market,” Ball says. “It’s good to keep a handle on who are the folks who drive you the most business and to have a defined plan to communicate with them.”
O&P practices want to be the first thought on physicians’ minds when they are making referrals. The practices earn that top spot by communicating regularly and proving that the patients are receiving excellent treatment in their care. If that communication isn’t happening, it’s easier for another practice to swoop in and promise their own excellent treatment.
“If you are not talking to your referral sources on a regular basis, I assure you that someone else will be,” Ball says.
“The more you can foster that relationship, the better off you will be because they will know your value.”
He suggests that O&P practices have a dedicated plan to keep in regular contact with referral sources. The owner and top clinicians should be the ones to stay in contact most regularly with the most important sources, and perhaps others in the office can help keep in contact with the rest.
“Complacency is an issue,” Ball says. “There is always a new competitor on the market, and they may have a completely different mindset than the practitioner who has been in the business for 20 years.”
KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK
The best marketing strategy is also a good strategy for O&P practices in general: Run a professional, knowledgeable business with excellent patient care.
When practices do a good job, patients will be more likely to tell their friends or others in the O&P community. When patients get good care, the referring physicians are more likely to send more patients toward that practice.
“If that patient is happy, then the doctor is happy,” Johnson says.
The key though is that practices have to make an effort to ensure their referral sources and potential patients hear about that excellent care.
If referral sources don’t know how positively most of their patients feel about their O&P care, the impression may be distorted by a few less-than-ideal experiences.
“It can be a problem if you take care of everyone and do a good job, but nobody says anything, and [the referral sources] only hear that four people out of 400 are unhappy,” Mansfield says. She suggests asking happy patients to tell their physicians about the excellent care they are receiving from an O&P clinic. “Word of mouth is the oldest marketing tool in the world.”
Ball says the practitioners should also be in regular communication with the referring physicians. The more they stay in touch, the more it feels like they are partners in the patient care—a relationship that the physician will keep at the top of his or her mind when an O&P competitor approaches them.
“Every practice has a competitor, and they all provide the same type of products,” Ball says. “But they don’t all provide the same level of service.”
He suggests that O&P practices communicate key milestones with the referring physicians and keep them in the loop as the patient progresses.
“It’s always good to have follow-up,” Ball says. “It can just be a short email saying, ‘Patient X took their first steps today. Here’s the picture or video.’ When you start doing that, you stop being a number on a page to them and become a true partner.”
Maria St. Louis-Sanchez can be contacted at [email protected].