Jeff Vacirca, MD
Community practice finds that 7-day-a-week care and short waits for appointments help it to stay competitive.
Multiple locations offer customers greater driving convenience than large, centralized facilities.
Involvement in community events helps with promotion and supplements a limited marketing budget.
All independent medical practices face much larger competitors these days, and among them is North Shore Hematology Oncology Associates of East Setauket, New York. The 22-physician organization must duke it out with 9 separate hospitals. It also must convince patients to choose it over such prestigious institutions as New York University Langone and Memorial Sloan Kettering.
All of those competitors have many advantages over North Shore: larger facilities, more specialists, fancier equipment, broader name recognition, and a greater ability to negotiate with payers. Yet North Shore has found a niche for itself by focusing on ways in which it can compete.
“Huge practices have huge offices, often located inside huge hospitals, which strike many patients as impersonal and confusing and bureaucratic,” says Jeff Vacirca, MD, who joined North Shore 12 years ago and became its CEO 5 years later.
“Our offices mostly measure a few thousand square feet. You enter a few steps from where you park and you get your treatment a few steps from where you enter. There’s no question about where to go, and everyone knows you when you walk in because you’re not one of 5000 patients.” says Vacirca.
Through its many small offices, North Shore has the strategic advantage of location. The practice will soon have 11 outposts, dotted all over its coverage area, so most potential patients in that market are no more than a short drive away from the nearest office. Institutional competitors, on the other hand, operate large regional offices, so many of their potential patients are 15 or 20 miles away. That might not seem like a huge distance to readers in much of the country, but Vacirca reports that such drives can take an hour or more in his crowded corner of Long Island.
“An hour there and an hour back, fighting Long Island’s traffic all the while, is a chore for anyone, but it’s a huge burden to undertake for a very sick person made weak by chemotherapy, particularly when the reward for that effort is exactly the same treatment they would have received closer to home and, most likely, an inferior level of patient care,” said Vacirca.
“The biggest challenge that small practices have to fight is the perception that the mega-health conglomerates offer superior treatment, but now that patients have access to the Internet, that’s pretty easy to do,” Vacirca said. “They can see for themselves that there’s a standard of care for every cancer diagnosis, so we are going to provide them the exact same treatment protocol they’d get from Memorial Sloan Kettering. Writing an order for chemotherapy is not the hard part. The thing that separates caregivers is the level of support they provide to help patients when the chemotherapy is making them feel terrible.
Independent practices obviously have less to spend on marketing than regional health conglomerates, but North Shore gets the word out by participating in a wide range of community events that emphasize its local roots. It supplements such efforts with a variety of traditional advertising.
“We use a mix of newspaper, radio and local cable advertising to let everyone know that we’re here, providing care that’s comparable to any place in Manhattan let alone any place on Long Island,” said Nicole Gregory, who oversees both the marketing and patient advocacy efforts at North Shore.
“We also launched a significant social media presence a couple of months ago, and we have found that to be a great way not only to get the word out about our practice but also to increase our engagement with existing patients,” said Gregory, whose weekends often illustrate the effort that community engagement can entail. She spent the Saturday before her interview at North Shore’s annual Patient Appreciation Day and the Sunday running a Tough Mudder race with dozens of colleagues to raise money to help cancer patients with financial hardships.
All small practices try to emphasize the personal touch to gain some competitive advantage over major medical groups, but North Shore decided 5 years ago that the key to its success lay in improving customer care in a wide variety of ways designed to improve patient satisfaction as well as patient health.