For the last year I’ve been going around the country, presenting at conferences, sharing my perspective on the future of physician relations. Below is the draft of an article I wrote recently that captures some of those views. (This is much longer than most blog posts because it was written as an article for an industry publication.)
The Digital Future of Physician Relations
The digital future of physician marketing is upon us. It hasn’t washed over our industry like a tsunami; rather, it has been a gradual evolution that has followed the slow but steady adoption of health information technology and digital communication tools by physicians. The emergence of the social or digital physician has been documented by numerous studies from organizations such as Manhattan Research, QuantiaMD, and ZocDoc, and written about in peer review publications including the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) and the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association (JAMIA).
It is now evident that physicians find value in interacting with other physicians via social platforms. Physician-only online communities like Doximity, QuantiaMD, Sermo and Medscape Physician Connect have become the leading digital gathering places for doctors seeking professional camaraderie, support and guidance. Within these online communities physicians can securely collaborate on diagnoses and patient treatment. Currently, one of these online communities, Doximity, has a membership that is so vast it includes one in three U.S. physicians.
Once it became apparent that physicians are gravitating toward digital platforms, it was only a matter of time before healthcare communicators and strategists recognized the opportunity presented by digital physician marketing.
Step One: Adoption of Digital Communication Tools for Physician Marketing
Many healthcare organizations, hospitals and health systems have taken the first step into the realm of digital physician marketing. This involved the integration of digital tools into the overall physician marketing program. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center was an early adopter when it launched its www.physicianrelations.com portal for referring physicians. This was just the beginning of its initial foray into digital marketing. Next it added a Twitter feed specifically targeting community physicians, a paper.li daily electronic newspaper that aggregated MD Anderson Faculty Tweets, and a Facebook page with oncology resources for health care professionals.
Other organizations like Tufts Medical Center would follow MD Anderson’s lead. Tufts Medical Center has introduced its www.TuftsMedicalCenter.tv website – a video repository and resource center for referring physicians and consumers. On the site, specialists and subspecialists speak to specific health conditions, medical procedures and therapies. For the busy community physician, the videos are easily accessible and a convenient resource when considering a potential patient referral. Tufts Medical Center and Floating Hospital for Children have launched a referring physician microsite designed to simplify the referral process for the physician and allow for a better patient experience. The physician microsite gives referring physicans up-to-date quality information, contact information for the physician liaison team and access to a number of helpful documents that can be downloaded as PDFs. The downloads include a quality brochure, patient brochures, talking points for physicians making a referral, directions to the medical center, and profiles of specialists.
Similarly, Signature Healthcare in southeastern Massachusetts, about 20 miles south of Boston, has launched its own digital platform designed to reach referring physicians. The microsite (SignatureMDExcellence.com), part of a broader physician marketing program, has proven to be a valuable tool for physician retention and recruitment – two important considerations in the highly competitive eastern Massachusetts healthcare environment. Online videos of Signature Healthcare’s employed physicians are showcased on the microsite and leveraged across a number of digital platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Google+ (often ignored by marketers), and Pinterest.
Finally, Cooper University Health Care successfully integrated digital tools into its physician relations program when it created the South Jersey Medical Report. The Report is a full physician marketing program targeting employed and community physicians. Elements of the program include a physician microsite rich with video content featuring Cooper specialists, a dedicated physician Twitter feed, a traditional physician newsletter available as a paper document and electronically, and a mobile application.
Healthcare organizations like Cooper University Health Care, Signature Healthcare, Tufts Medical Center and MD Anderson dipped their toes in the digital communication pool when they integrated these digital tools into their overall physician marketing programs. However, for these organizations and others, there looms an important question regarding how the digital age will impact the structure and function of the physician relations department.
Step Two: Defining Digital Roles within Physician Relations
The physician relations department has always been an aggregator of content relevant to the referring physician. Typically that content, once gathered, was distributed to medical professionals and practice administrators by way of newsletters and collateral material handed out during practice visits. Today, how does the availability of, and the need to distribute, large quantities of digital content impact the function of the physician relations team and, specifically, the physician liaison? One of the challenges facing physician relations departments in the current health care environment is how to handle this abundance of content and the addition of these new digital communication channels, often with fewer financial resources and a reduction in FTEs.
The Digital Content Marketer
In response to these challenges and opportunities, the roles within the physician relations department may need to evolve or change. One new position that seems likely to develop is that of the digital physician relations content marketer. This individual would be the point person within the department responsible for aggregating digital content and for disseminating it across numerous digital channels. Content would be aggregated on a primary platform developed specifically to meet the needs of community physicians. That could be a microsite, the “for medical professionals” section of the organization’s website, a LinkedIn Group or a blog. By continually updating the content, the information would be attractive to search engines and improve rankings.
The digital content marketer could also manage the department’s daily digital outreach to physicians and practices. This would involve using electronic marketing and social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and others) to post links to specific pieces of content that referring physicians may value. Of course, the digital content marketer will also have to monitor social channels and respond to Retweets and questions from followers. Active listening would an important part of this job, noting and then responding to requests from physicians and practice managers.
The Digital Physician Relations Specialist
It is likely that the physician liaison’s role will need to evolve as well. Although many physicians are now comfortable with digital communication tools, many are not. We are now only part of the way through this transformative process. This means there exists a significant opportunity to educate community physicians, clinicians and employees of the practice about ways to access information about the medical center via digital channels. An important part of the liaison’s role moving forward will likely involve using practice visits to familiarize these individuals with the digital platforms being used by the healthcare organization and acquainting them with the range of information available.
Another potential future role for the physician liaison involves them becoming digital physician relations specialists. This would significantly expand the reach of the liaison by adding digital communication to their role. Today, liaisons are limited in the number of practices they can visit in a day. However, with the help of social media, they can freely disseminate information about their organizations and reach out to practices far and wide, no longer encumbered by the obstacles of geography and time.
For the digital physician specialist, in addition to the traditional functions of a liaison, a portion of each day would be spent using social media to post content linking back to the organization’s digital hub (website, blog, microsite, etc). They would Retweet information shared by “faculty tweeters” and direct community physicians to the organization’s online resources for referring physicians.
Is It Time for Digital Physician Relations?
The question is no longer about the relevance of digital physician relations. Rather, the question today is whether your organization is going to embrace it now and get ahead of the curve, or play catch-up on the back end. Digital adoption among physicians will continue to grow. They will increasingly turn to digital communication to reach out to other physicians and to help them do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. They will actively look for trusted online resources that meet their professional needs. For medical centers and health systems looking to engage community physicians, these digital platforms are the next frontier. It is within the digital space, as a new feature of the physician relations program, that the hearts and minds of the new “digital doctors” may be won or lost. Effective communication requires that the information be delivered in a manner that fits within the context of the end-user’s professional life. As physicians’ appetite for digital information grows, so too must our digital mark