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The race for patients


24 March 2011

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It is a crucial time for GPs. As the sector anticipates
the new commissioning responsibilities,
in the media as a way of demonstrating thought leadership.

It is also critically important to continue with patient
satisfaction surveys so your service can be tailored according to people's comments. If you keep it up for a few months, this will allow you to measure your performance over time.
It is a crucial time for GPs. As the sector anticipates
the new commissioning responsibilities, practices are

It is a crucial time for GPs. As the sector anticipates
the new commissioning responsibilities,
in the media as a way of demonstrating thought leadership.

It is also critically important to continue with patient
satisfaction surveys so your service can be tailored according to people's comments. If you keep it up for a few months, this will allow you to measure your performance over time.
It is a crucial time for GPs. As the sector anticipates
the new commissioning responsibilities, practices are
also preparing for the long-awaited abolition of practice
boundaries. As catchments are dispensed with, the shrewdest
practitioners are getting ready to capitalise on the changes.
Indeed, without a ready-made stream of work, measures to
both retain and attract patients are no longer an option but a
necessity.

First, GP practices can consider ways to distinguish their
service from competitors, giving patients a compelling reason
to choose them. By analysing the demographic of your
practice area and those on your patient list, services can be
better designed.

For example, if your practice are surrounded by young
professionals you could introduce 'early bird' opening hours
or a walk-in clinic to fit around commuters' busy schedules,
capturing this lost market by offering more flexible
appointment times. You could also consider introducing
extra clinics focusing on student health or child vaccinations.
All measures must then be communicated effectively online
and via direct mail, for there is little point diversifying without
advertising what you offer.

Similarly, the GP content management systems currently on
the market allow you to communicate in ways that are familiar
to a modern generation. Not only can you send appointment
reminders automatically via SMS or email, you can send
regular messages to prompt patients who haven't had a checkup in a while. This is the minimum of what will be expected in an increasingly technological age as we move towards more efficient ways of providing care such as online consultations.

Indeed, a recent YouGov and Virgin Media business poll
found that 29% of the population believes that they will be
able to access their GP via web cam in 10 years' time.

It's no surprise to find that the same survey found the
desire to access healthcare remotely was greatest among
young people with almost 50% of this category being aged
between 18 and 34. Conversely, older respondents stated
their preference to access healthcare via the phone with 53%
of people over 55 choosing this medium. It is certainly well
worth thinking carefully about how to appeal to an older
patient demographic who may have conditions that require
ongoing management.

It may also be appropriate to emphasise the local,
community-centred focus of your practice's brand when
engaging with older patients. In an age when much of life
is becoming increasingly impersonal and disparate, many
may be attracted by a clinic that is also a neighbourhood
hub. However, this would need to be balanced with a drive to
broaden your appeal to attract patients from outside your usual
catchment area once the practice boundaries are abolished.

Newsletters, either quarterly or biannually, are an
effective tool for keeping in touch and fostering that sense
of relationship and communality within a patient base. Some
content can be aimed at endowing your practice with a sense
of 'personality' (perhaps by including a different staff profile
each week) while other sections can provide educational
articles which discuss a medical topic currently being featured
in the media as a way of demonstrating thought leadership.

It is also critically important to continue with patient
satisfaction surveys so your service can be tailored according to people's comments. If you keep it up for a few months, this will allow you to measure your performance over time.

Generally it is important to cultivate an environment where feedback is welcome – a 'comments box' could be less formal way of encouraging patients to give you their valuable opinions.

Of course, every practice is different and there's not a
generic solution or quick fix when it comes to improving
patient access. However, for every practice it will be a
question of balancing the needs of all its interested parties:
its practitioners, patients and administrative staff – the
receptionist who wants to get home on time and the patient
who can't get along to the surgery until after work. Success
will depend on finding a happy medium between these often
very disparate 'wants'.

Furthermore, in today's market, having an effective website
is critical. But 'effective' is the operative word. The standard
of website within the healthcare industry is still very low.

It needs to be easy to find using a search engine as well as
visually engaging. There is also much scope in tapping into
the public thirst for information (preparing for that which
Andrew Lansley heralded as the 'information revolution') and
increasing numbers of practitioners are using their websites as
a platform to publish, not only the basics about their surgery,
but also their clinical outcomes, testimonials and diagnostic
information in response to these changing requirements.

Another current buzz word is accessibility; not only should
your website be easy to navigate, there is now an expectation
among patients to access repeat prescription forms and make
appointments online. It is therefore essential to invest in
your internet accessibility in order to remain competitive in a
digital society.

The other way of bolstering your online presence is
through online forums and social networking sites which can
be used to talk expertly about your services to a vast number
of potential patients. It's easy to dismiss these as flash-inthe-
pan phenomenon that have nothing to do with medical
practice, when in fact they're now being used as marketing
and educational tools by many blue-chip companies. These
online efforts can also be bolstered by more conventional
marketing activity such as direct mail campaigns or leaflet
drops.

It goes without saying that any communication needs to be
more educational than sales-orientated, but in an increasingly
free market it is also important to promote your practice's
reputation – the experience of its practitioners, its desirable
heritage, or its level of professionalism. While many might
find it unpalatable to talk about 'brand' in relation to the
medical profession, it means significantly more than a logo
and a strap line: a brand is the summation of the aspects of
your service you are most proud of, so in that sense it is vital
that you have one that is understood by patients. An excellent
medical brand should reflect the expertise and discretion
which characterise the industry. Not only will it then promote
trust and recognition among patients, it can serve as a
bulwark against criticism which, once the full force of the
proposed spending cuts is felt, GPs must be prepared to face.

A final consideration when it comes to maintaining a
healthy patient base in a competitive market is the area of
hospitality, something which the private sector has taken on
board but is not yet on the NHS radar. A very easy way to
differentiate yourself from your competitors is to treat your
patients with extra special consideration. Perhaps consider
installing a coffee machine or introduce coffee table books
rather than just tattered magazines: small touches which
may seem insignificant can dramatically alter the patient's
impression of your practice.

These things should of course be in addition to common
courtesies such as apologising for any delay or answering the
phone as quickly as possible. It is vitally important that your
reception staff are impeccably polite and helpful; they are
a major touch point for your business and their behaviour
should reflect your high standards of patient-focused care.
Whatever your opinion, change is certainly coming and
its aim is to engineer a 'survival of the fittest' scenario to
expose weaker, inefficient practices. It is inevitable that size
and strength will be an advantage and therefore those in the
largest consortia, those with the biggest marketing budgets,
will have a head start. And yet, speed and agility are perhaps
more important; regardless of size, it will be those who act
the quickest, preparing in advance for the changes with
intelligent, patient-centred measures, who will come first in
the race for patients.

Top Tips

Differentiate – Diversify your service by implementing measures such as longer opening hours or specialised clinics. These should
target the patient demographic in your area and be based on their feedback.

Communicate – Ensure that all new initiatives are advertised using a variety of media including your website, online forums,
newsletters and direct mail campaigns.
Advocate – All communications should promote your 'brand' ie, the core values at the heart of your practice such as experience,
professionalism or community-focus.

Educate – Provide as much useful information as possible including patient reviews and clinical outcome data.
Update – Invest in modern forms of communication, particularly in your website, ensuring maximum functionality including online
appointment and repeat prescription forms.

Accelerate – Make your improvements as quickly as possible in preparation for the changes to come.

Darren Clare
Managing Director of
Create Healthcare

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