Building patient loyalty a sure way to promote practice success

June 1, 2011

As patients take on more financial responsibility for their healthcare, dermatologists are finding themselves in a challenging new role - being a commodity in a marketplace where patients shop for services. Success in this new environment requires your dermatology practice to retain its current patients, and attract new ones.

Key Points

Success in this new environment requires your dermatology practice to retain its current patients, and attract new ones. To do that, you must shift your focus from just measuring patient satisfaction to seeking - and gaining - patient loyalty.

A marketplace where consumers differentiate on price will be challenging to everyone in dermatology. Yet we all know that many people will pay more than the going rate for a commodity-based product if they perceive higher quality or an emotional connection (Starbucks latte, anyone?).

Measure loyalty. Ask patients the question that gets to what the researcher Fred Reichheld determined is the best way to measure satisfaction: "How likely is it that you would recommend Dermatology Associates to a friend or colleague (Reichheld, F. "The One Number You Need to Grow." Harvard Business Review, December 2003)?" The author of this sentinel research recommends tracking results based on a 10-point scale (instead of a five-point scale); doing so will more clearly differentiate loyal patients from those who are merely satisfied.

Follow through. If growth is on your mind, there's no better marketing tactic than to call patients two days after their visit. Inquire about their health and pointedly ask, "Was your experience with our practice positive, and what can we do to make it better?" Not only will you gather important intelligence about patient satisfaction, but this proactive call - now a rarity in the medical field - will differentiate your practice from your competition. It also will delight your patients. If making phone calls after every patient visit is too much, at least target new patients for these calls.

Dig into data. Query the database of your practice management system for patients who haven't been seen in at least two years (or adjust the time frame based on the resources you can allocate to this project). Send a letter to these patients, encouraging them to seek dermatological care at your practice. Track the efficacy of your efforts by assigning a specific phone number or employee for them to call. At minimum, review your chart transfers to identify and call patients who moved their records to other dermatologists in the community. Although you may not get all of those patients back, the insights you glean will be invaluable.

Take a page from Disney Corporation's playbook and "Take Five." Encourage every employee to spend five minutes every day to create a special interaction with a patient. Supplement this initiative by requiring staff to say "my pleasure" to patients at least five times a day. Repeated on a regular basis, this statement will become routine, and patients will be impressed.

Measure demand accurately. Most dermatologists are under the impression that their schedule documents patient demand. While the schedule certainly represents most of your demand, it does not count the patients who reach out to you but don't follow through. Track the disposition of every incoming telephone call. How many end up as appointments? If the call isn't converted to an appointment, you need to find out why. Monitor the reasons - from insurance to appointment availability - using trends that you identify to target for improvement.

Scrutinize reviews. Go online and search for your practice's name. Ideally, your practice's website appears first, but it's likely to be joined by reviews from current and former patients. Who writes the most reviews online? You got it - people who are dissatisfied, or even infuriated, by their experience at your practice. If you see fewer than five stars out of five possible in your reviews, take action. Ask your loyal patients to post reviews, and give them specific written instructions about how to write the review.