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Going to MARKET

Selling physiotherapy is essential for success. Alison Moore suggests some strategies

Employing a marketing manager one day a week has transformed Jennie Longbottom's practice. Within six months patient numbers had increased by 30 per cent and the Cambridgeshire practice had taken on four new practitioners.

Mrs Longbottom admits she was lucky; she has employed a former patient who had had a high-flying career with a major company but wanted to stop commuting. 'She brought in a completely new approach to the practice,' says Mrs Longbottom, principal at the Parks Therapy Centre in St Neots. 'She developed a marketing pack with the ethos and mission statement of the practice and what each practitioner brought to it. She spent time with each practitioner just brainstorming what they felt they added to the physiotherapy practice.'

Marketing manager Suzanne Charboneau then visited GPs and consultants with the marketing pack, to explain what the multidisciplinary practice had to offer. This was followed up by a visit from Mrs Longbottom to talk in greater depth. The packs have also been distributed through sports clubs and surgeries in the area.

Other initiatives have included encouraging practitioners to write for magazines, changes to the practice's website and business cards, and Ms Charboneau is now targeting contracts with companies. The practice is monitoring the extra patients her efforts have brought in and are sure it is cost effective. After she had approached GPs, referrals rose from 300 to 550 within a month.

So could this work for all practices - or just for larger ones? The Parks Therapy Centre has 19 practitioners. The answer is that there is no 'one size fits all' solution: whatever your size, good marketing - informing potential clients about the services you offer - is vital. And this applies to the UK's private and NHS physiotherapists (see panel: Meet the commissioners).

Marketing, though, is not taught as part of a physiotherapy degree. Paul Donnelly, general secretary of Physio First (the CSP occupational group for chartered physiotherapists in private practice), says many professionals enter self-employment without much business or marketing knowledge. He urges them to draw up a marketing plan as part of their overall business plan (see panel: Blueprint for success).

Considering what is wanted out of self-employment, such as the level of income and working hours, is key. There is little point in attracting lots of new clients through marketing if you don't wish to increase your workload.

Marketing will also need to be tailored to the practice's position in the marketplace: a new practice will need to expend more effort on marketing than one that is already established, and will take account of the type of clients who are likely to be treated. Measuring the impact of any marketing initiatives is also crucial. Jennie Longbottom's practice looked at spend on Yellow Pages adverts, for example, but felt the volume of clients generated did not justify the expense.

A WALKING BILLBOARD

So what marketing tools are likely to work best? A physiotherapist's clinical skills are likely to be the best marketing tool they have, says Mr Donnelly. 'If you are a good physio then you are 75 per cent of the way there in the sense that you will be getting people better and those people will be a walking billboard for you.'

Building up relationships with key referrers such as GPs and consultants is another plank of any marketing plan. Physios who specialise in certain areas, such as occupational physiotherapy or sports physiotherapy, may have additional referrers whom they need to cultivate. GP surgeries may allow private physios to display posters or leave leaflets advertising their services. Physios specialising in sports injuries may find local clubs will do the same.

Many physios will want to do more active marketing, Ivor Conway (pictured), who trained as a physiotherapist but now runs an internet marketing consultancy,  believes the internet should be part of any marketing strategy.

MAKING THE WEB WORK FOR YOU

Having a website is not enough: your website needs to show up on search engines to attract business. Mr Conway points out 97 per cent of clients won't look beyond the first page of results from any search so unless your website is there - or you pay for a sponsored link (usually on a 'pay per click' basis) – you are losing out. 'It's like having a poster in the window with the blinds down,' he says.

As most physios will be seeing clients from a fairly small geographical area, it is important their websites show up if a potential client searches for that area. Getting your website to show up on a search is a complex business but relevant content is important. Mr Conway recommends regularly updating websites, ensuring that important information (such as contact details, driving and car parking instructions) are easily found, and including information on different conditions, which can help with search engines.

Many physios will need professional help in setting up a website that will get a high listing on a search engine: a professionally designed website may cost £750 upwards. Maintaining and adding to the website can usually be done in-house.

Another well-worn path is advertising in the local paper: this ensures that you are reaching potential patients within a reasonable distance. The cost is moderate but you may need to advertise frequently to reach your audience. Some physiotherapists work in larger clinics, often with other professions, which may enable some shared advertising.

An advert in Yellow Pages or local directories is also likely to bring results: display adverts will be more expensive than just listings but may be more eye-catching. Such adverts will help reach patients who don't, or won't, use the internet to look for services.

Direct mailing, such as leaflet drops, can also help you reach potential patients in an area you define. The drawbacks are that many of the people you reach won't be interested in your service, and leaflets, like newspaper advertising, may be ephemeral.

But contact with former patients, perhaps through a regular email, can help to bring further business through patient-to-patient recommendation.

A WORD OF CAUTION

Physiotherapists and their marketing consultants need to keep in mind the Health Professions Council's standards of conduct. Letting the public know you are a registered physiotherapist is fine - but claiming to be the best in town is not.

The HPC's guidance says advertising has to be accurate and 'must not be misleading, false, unfair or exaggerated', while claims that skills, equipment of facilities are better than elsewhere have to be capable of proof.

Whether physios want to go it alone (see panel: Do-it-yourself) or call in the professionals is a question for each practice to decide. Mr Donnelly is sceptical about how useful professional marketing consultants can be. 'They are too expensive - it is hard to justify spending a couple of grand,' he says.

However, as Jennie Longbottom's experience shows, finding a good marketing manager - one who has marketing expertise and understands the nature of the business - can transform a practice. Another possibility is to designate one partner to specialise in marketing.

Remember, be flexible and prepare to change your approach if it does not produce the return you want. There are many strategies that can work: the aim is to find the one that fits you and your clients best. FL

FURTHER INFO

Physio First runs short courses covering marketing your practice.  Contact Donna Partoon email: donna.partoon@physiofirst.org.uk  Tel: 01327 354465

A guide to internet marketing for physios www.neuchi.co.uk/physiotherapy

Meet the commissioners

For physiotherapists who work in the NHS, marketing may seem an alien activity, but physiotherapy managers need to be able to convince commissioners of the value of their services. Judith Whittam, former public relations officer for the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Management, says: 'If you can't appeal to your commissioners then your marketing strategy is not quite right.' She adds: 'For the first time we will be able to sell ourselves and we won't be dependent on a traditional model of funding…I think it is quite exciting.'

She suggests physiotherapy managers need to:

  • look at their services as part of an overall pathway, rather than in isolation. This is likely to involve close working with colleagues from other professions
  • think about what commissioners want and how physiotherapy can help them achieve this. Outcomes will be important, but so are targets like 18-week waiting list, and waits in A&E, for example
  • look for evidence from existing patients about what the service achieves from them
  • produce pathways which are financially realistic and recognise other healthcare workers may be able to deliver some parts of the service. Commissioners work within a budget but can be persuaded to invest in services with longer term benefits
  • learn to speak the commissioners' language and understand what hits the right buttons with them. Remember some commissioners will come from social care. Get out and talk to the commissioners about their needs and how physiotherapy can contribute
  • communicate with staff

FURTHER INFO

The Society and the CPMH are working together on a support package for managers working in this new environment.

Making the business case: a physiotherapist's guide to commissioning is available on the

CSP website www.csp.org.uk

Blueprint for success

A successful marketing strategy will:

  • have a marketing plan with clear and measurable targets
  • expect to use a variety of different ways to reach potential patients
  • bear in mind the standards of professional conduct when advertising

Marketing plans should include:

  • marketing initiatives
  • costings for marketing initiatives, including the physio's own time
  • a target of new business
  • a way of measuring the impact of marketing

Do-it-yourself

Tony Donoghue and colleagues at the Manor Clinic in Sevenoaks, Kent, made the decision to do their own marketing rather than pay consultants. The clinic includes seven physios and other practitioners offering Pilates, reflexology, hypnotherapy and massage.

Even though the practice is well known locally and is one of the largest in the southeast, Mr Donoghue believes it is vital to keep the clinic's name in the public eye. 'If we did not advertise at all, we would be in danger of slipping behind,' he says. 'You have to speculate to accumulate - some of the money that is seemingly lost will pay dividends later.'

Keeping in touch with local GPs and sports clubs is key to their marketing strategy, and Mr Donoghue is thinking of launching a regular newsletter for local GPs. The practice has a display advert in Yellow Pages, and advertises sparingly in the local paper but has not found leaflet drops effective. The clinic is open until eight in the evening and on Saturday morning to meet the needs of commuters.

The clinic's website includes a page outlining what is involved in physio treatments, as well as sections giving details of each physio's experience, and a page listing the conditions treated. It highlights that appointments can be made without a doctor's referral.

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Article Information

Author(s)

Alison Moore

Issue date

3 October 2007

Volume number

13

Issue number

19

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