Rennie Ackerman, marketing manager of New Jersey-based Dermatology Group, P.C., said that her 15-physician practice has also reduced its investment in traditional advertising in recent years, instead devoting more resources to education and community outreach events focused on public health issues such as skin cancer or sun protection.
“When we’re doing speaking events and skin cancer screenings locally, it still takes staff time and resources, but it’s not advertising the practice as much as it is the physicians. It helps them connect with patients and educate the public,” Ackerman said. “We like to think of ourselves as a big practice with a small-town feel, and part of that is getting the public to know our doctors personally. It creates a connection and rapport with the community — patients recognize our physicians in line at the movie theater or at the coffee shop. It’s not advertising, it’s health messaging that increases the visibility of our physicians and practice.”
To maximize both the effectiveness of community messaging and efficiency of staff time, Ackerman runs the community outreach activities through a centralized process that she oversees.
“Even if the doctors have an event they want to participate in, we make sure it travels through the department so we can schedule it accordingly. I may have to block the doctor’s schedule, which could affect other staff. We have a lot of providers and staff, so I want to make sure they schedule it correctly,” Ackerman said. “Over 75 percent of our physicians and staff participate in these programs, and you could honestly spend an entire career just doing these.”
Ackerman’s process involves creating a master calendar that includes both events chosen by her or the practice owners as well as events brought to her attention by practice physicians interested in participating in a certain event. She will dispatch employees based on both stated interest and personal connection with the community. Many of the practice’s dermatologists, she said, want to participate in events in and around the towns they reside in.
Delivering the message
Espie Byrd, the marketing and revenue manager for multi-state practice West Dermatology, found that in order to better focus on delivering public health messaging to the underserved communities in several practice locations, it was necessary to create a department solely for that purpose. Most often, this was because a new practice location had opened in an area that was previously devoid of dermatologists who accepted Medicare and some lower-paying insurance plans.
“We found that the messaging we needed to push was substantially different in some communities with traditionally underserved patient populations. We established something we refer to as our community outreach program that allows us to advertise or message specially about how to detect, prevent, and be aware of skin cancer,” she said. “We’ll go to health fairs, senior centers really, anywhere that will have us. We do 20-minute presentations where we hand out AAD pamphlets and make an RN or PA available for more education on skin cancer and skin protection. They often accompany one of our physicians in a support role. Sometimes people are more comfortable asking questions of an RN or PA.”
Ackerman also distributes practice-designed patient education materials, which she and the physicians at the group design with clear, concise messaging on the importance of skin cancer awareness and the need for testing.
“It’s practice-branded material, but the overriding message is that skin cancer awareness is necessary. We’ve put it in the air, so that even if you don’t go to our screening, the message sinks in,” Ackerman said. “It might trigger a patient to see a mole that has changed and get them to a dermatologist to see it checked out. You’re putting that out into the world, focusing the message, and I’m a big believer in that.”
Dr. Rosenberger said that she finds patients that approach her at talks or during health fairs with questions often find it far easier to approach her than patients who meet her in an exam room for the first time.
“It helps for people to meet you one-on-one in a non-threatening environment like a public event,” Dr. Rosenberger said. “A lot of times, people have anxiety about calling a new physician and coming to their first appointment. But if they see you at an event or even just in public, they’ll come and talk to you, and ask questions.”
Outreach to underserved communities, Byrd said, required re-evaluating old ways of messaging. For patients with limited access to or interest in the Internet or television, alternative and free weekly newspapers proved an effective tool in drawing more patients for skin cancer screenings.
“We’ll look at the skin cancer screening numbers in a certain location and will take on monthly or biweekly ads to let the community know where we are if we see that there’s a need,” she said.
In addition, she said, the practice would purchase advertising in underserved communities that simplified the message in terms of descriptions of techniques or procedures. In many cases, the practice promoted services such as annual checkups and regular preventative care.
In tracking the results of community-based messaging, gathering and maintaining metrics depends on having processes built into patient encounters that capture each patient’s cognizance and reception of the messaging, generating data that can be tracked. Byrd said that her practice’s electronic health record (EHR) software captures the answer to the question “Where did you hear about our practice?” as it is asked during appointment scheduling and is able to cross-reference it against the demographic and epidemiological data captured during the encounter. Analyzing this data, Byrd said, allows for a fairly sophisticated look at how and where specific outreach messages have been received.
“The way we look at our patients’ responses to ads or outreach events depends on the location and on our evaluation of the patient population,” she said. “The big picture is constantly changing around us. It’s important to be able to place yourself in an observer role and form an outline of a location or patient population.”
Another indication of increased physician or practice visibility is an increase in the number of speaking or educational invitations a dermatologist receives. Dr. Rosenberger, who said that she participated in every available type of advertising and community outreach event during her first handful of years in practice, was for a time a regular guest on a local radio show.
“I was starting a brand new practice in a community without a dermatologist. I took every opportunity that came my way at first,” Dr. Rosenberger said. “There’s a local talk radio show that I would go take calls from the public during skin cancer awareness week or rosacea month. That outlet was great for me, and I enjoyed it.”
Ackerman’s practice also saw increased efficiency in the messaging itself, in that local community health organizations began to pull together their own events. Her practice’s dermatologists can participate without the need for the practice to organize or advertise.
“I have been lucky enough to have been the recipient of the work done by the hosts of the screenings and events,” Ackerman said. “That leaves you free to try new events or a new messaging tactic on your own. During the month of May, we did community advertising for skin cancer screenings. We also did a press release, just to put the word out about melanoma awareness and sun safety. When you’re educating the public on their health, they’re typically very grateful.”