Relationship Development Strategies

Dear Arizona Pain Specialists,

My partner and I run a growing interventional pain practice. During the past three months we hired a new physician and soon will be opening a new location. I know marketing pain management practices has been viewed negatively in the past, but it’s important for us to advertise the new location and the new physician to generate business for the clinic. However, I’m not sure of the best ways to use a marketing campaign to create business for our new clinic and cultivate new relationships with potential referring physicians. Do you have any suggestions that can help us promote and develop our business and relationships in the community (including potential patients and referring physicians), while also helping us sustain that growth and development over the long term?

Sincerely,
Mixed-Up About Marketing


Dear Mixed-Up About Marketing,

Business development has become a vital component of a pain management practice. Still, most physicians are not taught how to develop referral sources and identify new markets. Traditionally, marketing pain management practices has been viewed in an unflattering light. But chances are your competition is doing just that—because relying on word of mouth and a good reputation, although critical, are no longer sufficient.

Creating a marketing plan for your practice need not be intimidating. With a bit of research and strategic communication, your practice will flourish with strong referral relationships.

Unfortunately, the pain management specialty has been plagued with “pill-mill” practices, many of which are raided and closed by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Every detail of such dramatic events often is recorded for the evening news, leaving those in the specialty who operate ethical practices suffering from being misperceived. Physicians who lack adequate training to practice appropriate pain management cast an ugly shadow on the rest of the field. Those who are truly serving their patients with the best care should consider how these closures and media coverage influence the community’s opinion. The solution is education. Marketing is an opportunity to educate referral sources and patients on the merits of appropriate and effective pain management. With the right campaign, you set the tone for the conversation about the specialty in your community.

A Thorough Review

To develop new business, first spend time reviewing the positive and negative characteristics of your current practice. What do you and your staff do really well? What are you proud of? What makes you different from the pain practice across town? On the flip side, what bothers you about your work? What do you know you could be doing better? What is the most common complaint you hear from patients? This introspection can yield several ideas to improve marketing efforts and to identify areas where your practice may not fare as well compared with your local competition. A healthy business strategy challenges your staff to leap past stagnant comfort zones. When you are working together in this growth mode, your practice will see new business in ways you couldn’t have anticipated, as people notice and are drawn to success.

If introspection is not your strength, consider asking patients for specific feedback. Patients will be honest about what they do and do not appreciate about your practice. Perhaps the front-desk person is impolite (but of course not in front of physicians or owners). Perhaps the waiting room bathrooms need to be cleaned more often. Perhaps the wait time is unbearable. These are important details typical physicians or owners would not see because they are busy doing what they are great at: practicing medicine. The successful practice must see the forest for the trees. Listening to patients—through a simple evaluation completed after service—is a great way to gather information to fine-tune your work.

Time spent reviewing the competition also is critically important. In this analysis, you’ll ideally be able to identify areas where your services are superior. These areas are your marketing leverage. For example, perhaps your practice is the only one in the area that offers both interventional pain management modalities and medication management. If your services are comparable to other pain practices, consider your qualifications. Are you the only board-certified specialist in your area? Are your customer service and/or timeliness of scheduling new patient referral appointments excellent? The act of self-evaluation will help find areas to improve in your practice and this will subsequently increase referrals and enhance your reputation. That said, word of mouth will always be the best referral source and the one you have to work the hardest to maintain.

A Consistent Message

Once the key positive characteristics of your practice have been identified, the marketing message must be crafted. It’s imperative to highlight the strengths of your practice. It’s just as important to never say anything negative about your competition, as this will probably damage your reputation and will foster ill will in the pain-treating community. It also is important to have a consistent message verbally, on brochures and on your Web site. You must decide how that message will be delivered to the marketplace. This message should be consistent, clear and target exactly who you want to attract to your business, including new and existing referral sources.

A marketing campaign should start with a strong “elevator speech.” This is a 30-second speech, explaining what your practice does, that can be given in the time it takes to ride several floors in an elevator. The overall marketing campaign should then build on this foundation. Typically, practices will start with a marketing brochure, and might expand to Web site development, radio, magazine, newspaper and television.
Building Relationships With Referral Sources

Although it may not make sense for a physician to single-handedly run a marketing campaign, the campaign must start at the top. All community networking opportunities should be used to spread your message. Visiting top referral sources for lunch or dinner is a great way to strengthen relationships. Provide your cell phone number to referring physicians and encourage them to call whenever they have a question regarding a patient. Imagine this conversation from the patients’ perspective: They are much more likely to follow through with the referral when they know there is a specialist already familiar with their situation. It would make even more of an impact if it is a specialist their trusted primary care physician has on speed dial.

Forging strong relationships with referring physicians is dually beneficial. Regardless of the pain practice, there will be difficult patients. Likely, there will be patients who need to be discharged from service, and perhaps discontinued from opioid medications. When the pain physician has a good working relationship with the referring physician, it is easy to make a phone call to explain these decisions before an unsatisfied and often angry patient has a chance to do so. It is wise to make these calls as soon as possible so that you prevent misinformation from reaching your referral sources. Chances are, referring physicians will not only understand and appreciate the follow-up, but will also have their own difficult-patient story to swap.

Aside from marketing and developing relationships with referring physicians and patients, it is important to consider opportunities to create connections with hospitals, urgent care centers and even large employers. Often, pain physicians are too busy with outpatient clinics to handle inpatient issues, but that doesn’t mean relationships with hospitals are impossible. Hospitals can be valuable partners in providing high-quality pain management services to patients. Pain management procedures such as the minimally invasive lumbar decompression procedure by Vertos Medical, kyphoplasty, and the permanent implantation of intrathecal pumps and spinal cord stimulators often are performed in hospitals. Therefore, knowing hospital leadership, especially those who decide who will be hired and/or allowed to perform these procedures at the facility, is wise.

As the physician and marketing representative develop and maintain long-standing relationships, there is an inherent value in tracking the number and source of referrals. In today’s medical marketplace of managed care and declining reimbursements, a referral source may not have the time to contact you and express dissatisfaction or concerns with a particular patient scenario. The referring physician may simply start to refer his or her patients elsewhere without giving you the opportunity to address the issues at hand. By tracking the number of referrals coming into your practice, you can monitor in real-time whether there is a decrease or increase of referrals.

A thriving pain practice with diverse referral sources, a broad patient base and a sterling reputation in the community comes from two key elements: strong relationships and superior communication. These elements are developed when physicians practice great medicine, hire employees with excellent character and are selective as to how they spend their time outside of the practice. All facets are within reach, and all make the pain management specialty stronger and more respected within the community.

—Patrick W. Hogan, DO, Paul Lynch, MD, and Tory McJunkin, MD


Drs. McJunkin and Lynch founded Arizona Pain Specialists, a comprehensive pain management practice with three locations, seven pain physicians, 10 midlevel providers, three chiropractors, on-site research and behavioral therapy. They teach nationally and are consultants for St. Jude Medical and Stryker Interventional Spine. Through their partner company, Boost Medical, they provide practice management and consulting services to other pain doctors throughout the country. For more information, visit ArizonaPain.com and BoostMedical.com.