Oncology Practices Can Preserve Independence With a Strong Marketing Effort

Oncology Live®Vol. 20/No. 13
Volume 20
Issue 13

From 2016 to 2018, there was an 8% increase in the number of community oncology practices consolidated into hospital systems, and this trend has many independent practices struggling to avoid the same fate. Two winning strategies are emerging to help practices remain independent.

Kathy Gaughran

Kathy Gaughran

Kathy Gaughran

From 2016 to 2018, there was an 8% increase (658 vs 609) in the number of community oncology practices consolidated into hospital systems,1 and this trend has many independent practices struggling to avoid the same fate. Two winning strategies are emerging to help practices remain independent, according to Kathy Gaughran, a senior marketing strategist at Healthcare Success Strategies, a physician marketing consulting firm in Irvine, California. The first involves strengthening confidence levels between patient and physician; the second, leveraging staff to build referrals and improve practice standing in the community.

Gaughran, who discussed these strategies at the 2019 Community Oncology Alliance Annual Conference, said independents can succeed if oncologists and staff members become relationship builders who respond effectively to changing patient expectations and learn how to market their clinic.2

Gone are the days when patients revered the physician, diligently listening to advice, accepting recommendations, and following prescribed treatment without question, according to Gaughran. Today, a new patient is likely to show up at the first visit with a multipage printout representing a plethora of home-based research, Gaughran said: “Dr Google is in the house.”

Time is Valuable

Modern patients are more impatient than those of the past, Gaughran said. They believe that their time is as valuable as the physician’s, want to be treated like customers, and tend to be more preoccupied with the affordability of care. “When patients show up with the 40-page printout, they don’t know the answers, but they want to know that you do,” she said. “It’s important to establish the value in the relationship between you and your patient.”

The provider is not the only one who must deliver value. The support staff also must participate in a value-added exchange, beginning with the person who answers the phones. Customer service training is essential, Gaughran said: “It’s important to stay on top of that initial touchpoint. It is the first opportunity to impress the patient and make them aware that you and the staff are there for them.”

To help build the practice, staff can convert phone call inquiries into first visits, turn visitors into loyal patients, generate patient referrals, and promote key services. Handling new patient inquiries correctly must be a top priority, with staff members set up to succeed. The incoming call needs to be transferred from the front desk, with the objective to secure a first visit by the patient. For this, staff selection is essential. Phone answerers must be chosen carefully, paid appropriately, and trained. In addition, incentives should be considered as a tool for improving results and performance should be tracked, Gaughran said.

The patients who are most important to understand are the millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, Gaughran said. They have buying power and can be impactful on the success of a practice by what they say about it, how they vote with their feet, or click with a mouse.

Use Physician Liaisons

Employees who function in a marketing and ambassadorship capacity need to be “physician liaisons,” Gaughran said. Their responsibilities may include physician relations, business development, marketing, and public relations. Much like pharmaceutical sales representatives who call on client—physicians, practice liaisons call on potential referral sources (eg, other referring physicians) to cultivate and establish relationships. The physician liaison will become the voice of the practice in the medical community. The ultimate goal is to increase patient referrals from existing providers and secure new business from nonreferring physicians (Table 1).

“We’re seeing more people in this position because of the pressure from hospitals that are purchasing community oncology practices,” Gaughran said. Many physicianowned practices are doing everything they can to remain independent, and a good liaison can appeal to the referring community, she said.

For physician liaisons to succeed, practices should hire people who are highly motivated and skilled, good communicators, educated or trained and experienced in specialized care, capable of building relationships, personable, and highly organized. These employees typically work to advance the practice’s agenda, perform market research, and develop referral databases, Gaughran said. They usually do community outreach too.

The work of a liaison involves more than handing out cookies or bringing bagels for the staff, she noted, but that’s a start. Gaughran offered 2 strategies for a liaison to be successful: Pay attention to the staff of referring practices, and prioritize the list of referring physicians to optimize results from targeting those individuals. “Prioritize the database into categories from A, B, C, and on down based on volume of referrals and opportunities. Your A category may be to focus on high-referral volume practices or those that could turn into high-volume referrers,” she said.

Strengthening and maintaining ties with referring practices is essential to remaining competitive. If referring physicians are important to a practice, they are important to other practices too, Gaughran noted. Becoming complacent and overestimating loyalty are common challenges and should be avoided.

Establishing new relationships and enhancing current ones with referring practices are key components of a physician liaison program. The physician liaison focuses on growing new relationships by identifying and responding to the needs of the referring practice.

Marketing Automation

Gaughran recommends that once a referral database has been compiled, practices should use a marketing automation system that, at a minimum, maintains contact with referrals via regular emails (Table 2).

The message can include links to a practice’s latest research publications, posters presented at a medical conference, news about awards the practice received, or recently launched or acquired technology. The content can be adapted for use on the practice’s social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. In this way, a layered communications strategy takes shape, allowing many individuals to become familiar with the practice.

Over time, the automated system can develop into a highly valuable tool. “The data collected by the system can be synthesized and titrated so that it’s richer and purer moving forward,” Gaughran said.

Always, the practice must keep in mind that it is developing a brand. The service and quality of service, when fulfilled, need to be a promise delivered, with a consistent level of performance. The practice’s reputation should be upheld. The resulting brand identity is the sum of unique experiences and expectations that customers associate with a practice—how the public perceives the practice. “If you don’t control the message, they will,” Gaughran said.

The benefits that accrue from a welldefined brand are numerous. They enable the practice to stand out from the competition, charge more for services, and generate more referrals.

Last, Gaughran said, practices that strive for these accomplishments share certain success traits. They are committed to excellence, create outstanding operations and marketing systems, have a business perspective, and know what they want. n


  1. 2018 Community Oncology Alliance practice impact report. communityoncology.org/wp-content/uploads/ sites/20/2018/06/COA-Practice-Impact-Report-2018-FINAL. pdf. Community Oncology Alliance website. Published April 1, 2018. Accessed June 20, 2019.
  2. Gaughran K. Marketing your clinic: referral building, patient experience, branding, advertising and PR. Presented at: 2019 Community Oncology Alliance Annual Meeting; April 4-5, 2019; Orlando, FL. communityoncology.org/downloads/conference/ 2019Presentations/friday/business/Fri_1250pm_ Business.pdf.
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