Marketing metamorphosis: Advertising critical in medical field

Monday, February 21, 2011
Dr. Sonjay Fonn examines his patient, Amy Blankenship, at Midwest Neurosurgeons in Cape Girardeau (Fred Lynch)

It wasn't long ago that marketing and advertising were rare -- even frowned upon -- in the medical field.

"No one advertised on billboards or on TV, and rarely in the newspaper," says Robyn Crocetti, administrator of Gastroenterology Associates and GA Endoscopy Center, who started her career at a family practice in 1982. Nearly 30 years later, Crocetti works for a medical practice that advertises in several publications and on billboards, and she believes the need for advertising will only continue to grow. Colonoscopies are crucial in catching colon cancer before it's too late, and the GA center has four physicians providing low-cost procedures, she says.

"To educate the consumers, we will continue to highlight our services and what we can offer the medical community by advertising, and probably even increase our visibility in the public eye," Crocetti says.

Dr. Sonjay Fonn of Midwest Neurosurgeons in Cape Girardeau has also seen a stronger emphasis on medical marketing in recent years, and says it will only increase in the future. "I do believe that a medial practice is not unlike any other business, and marketing plays a very important factor," he says. "I would say medical marketing has been significantly growing in the last five to 10 years."

Fonn treats a number of conditions at his practice, including some -- like diabetic peripheral neuropathy -- that are severely debilitating and cause permanent damage if left untreated. For that reason, it's become more urgent to inform doctors and patients about the early symptoms, as well as the latest treatment available not in St. Louis or Memphis, but in Cape Girardeau.

"We have a new modality that can make a change in somebody's lifestyle. Pain is a very, very disabling condition. It wipes people out until they're unable to live, to do the simple everyday things that you and I take for granted," Fonn says. "If I can help a patient, even one patient, be able to do these things, then I feel I have done something for society and humanity, and I want to tell more patients about these new practices."

Laurie Pleimann, sales and marketing director for Cape Radiology Group, has only worked in the medical field for six years, but she's already seen a change in how doctors are marketing -- and why it's so crucial.

"Patients are becoming more and more engaged in their health care," she says. "Seventy percent of patients look online to make their health care decisions. It's becoming more important to educate and inform correctly, not just through advertising but through proven facts."

According to Pleimann, Cape Radiology has staff dedicated to answering patients' questions and forming relationships with them, and all patients are encouraged to fill out comment cards after their visits. Outside her own office, most of Pleimann's marketing efforts involve visiting referring physicians and asking, "What can we do better?" The world is moving at a very fast pace, says Pleimann, and, "If you don't ask them, they're not going to tell you." Pleimann also frequents radiology-specific websites and attends symposiums to keep up with the medical field.

"Patients' needs are ever-changing, and we just want to keep up and be on the top of our game," she says. "We try to stay in tune with all the physicians' offices. They know what patients want because they hear it from their patients." And in the end, successful marketing really comes down to face-to-face communication, says Pleimann.

"I believe in relationships -- creating relationships with patients, with physicians, insurance companies, vendors. More communication means less ambiguity. That's best for the patients, and we all benefit from that," she says.

Fonn agrees that solid relationships and communication are the foundation of medical marketing.

"The No. 1 way we let people know about us is by dedication to our patients," he says. "We do a lot of advertising, but by far the most referrals we get are from patients' family members. We treat patients with respect, dedication and concern. If we treat them well and they have a good outcome, they tell their friends and family. Word-of-mouth is one of our biggest referral services."

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