Article

The Untapped Marketing Resource

How to use practice management systems and EMR for practice growth

The Untapped Marketing Resource

How to use practice management systems and EMR for practice growth.

By Kay Coulson

How to market the services of one's medical practice is a popular topic among physicians. Scores of articles weigh in on the pros and cons of television advertising, the efficacy of newspaper and how to optimize a Web site to improve internet search rankings. Whatever the virtues of these methods, they focus externally on the acquisition of new patients. But some of the most effective marketing utilizes an internal marketing tool you probably already own.

Most ophthalmology practices have a computerized practice management system (PM) for appointment scheduling. And now many are adopting electronic medical records (EMR) for future efficiency and reimbursement opportunities. But one of the most significant benefits these office systems provide is their marketing potential, a benefit overlooked in most medical practices.

Here's how to make the most of it.

What Your Patient Wants Today… And May Want in the Future

When a patient calls to schedule an appointment, they've told you what they're interested in at this moment. But how you schedule that appointment—the appointment type chosen—sets up a chain for all future communication with this patient about additional services. It is imperative your appointment types have definitions that can be used to extend your service offerings. We're surrounded by companies that use their ordertaking systems to learn what we want, and recommend what else we might like. Think Amazon with book recommendations based on what you've viewed or what other customers with these interests bought; Netflix with movie recommendations based on your queue content; and Facebook ads appearing on your profile that match activities and events you've “liked.”

We can apply these same sophisticated principles to our practices. Our appointment scheduling system is our ordertaking tool, and its content is rich in additional uses. However, we have to set up appointment types to tell us what our patients want. Appointment types have usually been defined based on what we might bill, which is a serious case of the tail wagging the dog. Appointment scheduling templates and definitions must be considered an inquiry system—what customers ask for, not what did the doctor did. Here are a few simple ways you can make your PM and EMR systems become dynamic marketing tools.

The Inquiry Appointment

Create an “inquiry” appointment. This is the most overlooked appointment in our arsenal. PM systems traditionally don't capture information until an appointment is scheduled, so a new patient calling who wants an appointment but hangs up without scheduling is invisible to you.

Historically, LASIK and cosmetic practices put elaborate secondary systems into their offices to capture this inquiry—using ACT, Refractiveware or tick-sheets sitting next to schedulers. But most comprehensive practices have ignored, or been unaware of, this lost business. Capture this information within your existing PM system simply by creating an “inquiry” appointment. When a new patient calls, they are “scheduled” as an “inquiry.” Book this appointment at 6pm or later on the day of the call (after clinic ends). In the comment box, list how the patient found your practice or what prompted the call today—the radio spot heard on the way to work, the optometrist referral for their cataract, etc.

This is immediately followed by booking the exam as we normally do. But now if they don't complete this exam scheduling—because we can't see them soon enough, or they cancel before the visit—we have a record of this patient. They're in the one system everyone in the office uses, and we can communicate with them in the future.

Appointments That Fuel Growth

Each practice must determine what type of patients they want to see more or less of, and each physician must decide which visits should be on their particular calendar. One of the major ways you can improve practice performance is to provide definition and scheduling for the visits you want more of. The most common visit type in ophthalmology offices is the complete or annual exam. And often the only modifier in scheduling this visit is New Patient or Return Patient.

Yet from a practice growth standpoint, this isn't what you want to know about this patient before they visit. You want to know if they are Under Age 50—to provide information, education and testing geared toward LASIK, or glasses, or contacts. You want to know if they are Over Age 50, to make sure they receive information about cataracts, lens implants, blephs and cosmetic services.

Going one level deeper, if you're a practice that would like to do more lens surgery, shouldn't you have a Lens Eval visit? Wouldn't you want to ask a few more questions in the intake call to determine whether this person has a cataract or symptoms consistent with a cataract so you can see them on time, and with sufficient time, to discuss lens implant options? Isn't this the best patient to move out of a busy (and often late-running) clinic day because you want this patient to have a stellar experience with you?

Every practice has a different answer to what they'd like to do more of, but the key message is to identify your “fuel appointments.” They are the backbone of your growth and the foundation for achieving the practice you want.

Use EMR to Promote Key Service Lines

Moving beyond your PM system, you can use EMR as a powerful marketing tool also. Since the federal government is requiring that all practices have an EMR in the near future in order to participate in Medicare, why not get all the benefit you can out of it? Here are some ideas:

► EMR tells you who had Botox injections. Use that information to send four-month reminders for fillers, blephs and other skincare services. These alone aren't huge revenue generators, but they keep you top of mind for the patient and you'll benefit from their continued referrals.

► You know who had a refraction. Cross check this report with who bought or ordered glasses from optical. Send an offer via email or a hand-written note with VIP card to encourage their return for glasses or sunglasses.

► You know who got a prescription for contact lenses. Send this patient instructions about how to order online with you and time reminder postcards to their reorder dates, making sure the health benefits of LASIK are provided.

► You know who had cataract surgery a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. Did you send those patients a birthday card, invite them back in for their annual visit, and introduce the wellness OD they'll see at this visit? Did you start a Lifestyle Lens Club, with special benefits for other elective or hearing services?

► You know who is being seen for IOP checks, but are you sending specific reminders when they are due for an HRT or visual field? Are you sending these patients the latest article your physician wrote about an emerging glaucoma treatments? Patients want to feel you're the best at improving their condition. Help them believe that.

Give the People What They Want

You can see from this list that simply sending an annual exam reminder is insufficient to build an extraordinary, service-oriented practice. Patients increasingly demand that we know what they want and can anticipate what else they might want. There are services and procedures you'd like to do more of. Make it part of the marketing responsibility in your practice that appointment and billing data provide the conduit and first line of activity toward that growth.

Internal marketing in medical practices historically meant that brochures were sitting in key locations, DVD players worked and a presentation was delivered to staff over lunch describing new services. Today, your most powerful internal marketing tool is mining patient intake and billing systems to offer patients more of your services based on what they've already chosen from you. Use your computers, your systems and your marketing savvy to ensure patients never miss a chance to say yes to your practice. OM

Kay Coulson is the president of Elective Medical Marketing, a consulting firm based in Boulder, Colo. that helps surgeons build their elective vision service lines. She can be reached at kay@electivemed.com.