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Raising your practice's profile

Sue Broome has suggestions for marketing the services you offer to patients and commissioners.

At its core marketing is about customer - or patient - satisfaction and organisational survival. It is a business discipline that has matured in the mass consumerism and aggressively competitive environments of today. Every sector or industry, from Microsoft to Mercedes and holidays to healthcare, adopts a marketing approach to different degrees.

GP practices are 'selling' a service; and with it, the opportunity to ensure that patients (and commissioners) choose you.

Nowadays, patients are not all willing to accept that 'doctor knows best': they expect to get the best doctor.

If they do not get this, some will go elsewhere and potentially take some of your funding with them. Assuming you accept the argument that marketing is a way of doing business and that practices are businesses, where do you start?

Marketing mix
Essentially, marketing services comprises the seven Ps: product, price, place, promotion, people, process and philosophy (see box below).

The seven Ps of marketing

Product - Or service or idea.

Price - Contract and running costs; perceived costs of commissioning your services.

Place - Where your services can be accessed.

Promotion - Including reputation management.

People - Your staff, customers (patients) and competitors.

Process - Day-to-day operational aspects.

Philosophy - What the practice stands for.

Each one of these requires careful attention. However, here is a health warning: marketing is also a mindset and must permeate an entire organisation rather than being the domain of one individual.

If any elements of the marketing mix are missing, the implications for your business could be bad news. Some patients will move to your competitors, the local GP consortium may not want the practice as a member and there will be income losses.

Practice 'brand'
Marketing activity should include defining and promoting your unique selling proposition and building a brand identity.

What is it that defines your practice and sets you apart from your competitors? Why should patients and commissioners pick you?

Are people getting what they expect from your service and what do they think of it? Consider the practice's 'brand' values and whether they permeate all organisational activity.

For example, if your brand value is 'to provide high quality and responsive patient care'

that is fine if people can get through on the telephone or reorder their prescriptions via your website, but not so good if they cannot do this.

National patient surveys are all well and good but cannot give you the focused answers you need to improve, generate or build your business. Regular patient and commissioner feedback is essential and need not be expensive to obtain.

Use every opportunity you have to walk in your patients' shoes - from a simple 'How are we doing?' question on your website to a comments box at reception.

Also there are various online survey tools that may only cost, say, £200 or £300 a year and are quick and easy for the layperson to use – Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com) and Smart Survey (www.smart-survey.co.uk) are two examples.

You can also work with your patient group (if you have one) to better understand how your practice is perceived.

Practice reputation
A good reputation takes considerable effort to build and can be ruined quickly. How you engage with your patients, the local community and wider stakeholders will say a lot about how fast you can recover from any loss of reputation.

General practice is, on the whole, a well-respected and appreciated profession and service. However, it will be tested over the coming months as NHS funding cuts continue to bite and if there are increasing difficulties in referring patients - particularly for elective treatment.

How much effort you can devote to the promotion element of marketing may have a profound effect on how the practice is perceived.

How will you proactively enlist and build support for the services you deliver or change? Building positive relationships with councillors, MPs, neighbourhood groups, schools, new public health teams and local media can be beneficial in sustaining 'customer' confidence.

There is a wide variety of communication channels at your disposal including practice newsletters, patient groups press releases and social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Marketing capacity
Build up the practice's capacity for marketing activity by, for example, skilling up your practice/business manager by organising some training, then supporting them.

Consider combining resources with a group of practices to buy in expertise or to hire a PR/marketing consultant and consider additional 'hands on' support via a graduate programme

Remember too that your LMCs will have a huge fount of knowledge.

  • Sue Broome is director of communications and marketing at Londonwide LMCs, www.lmc.org.uk

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