Managing Your Practice

Keeping track


New patients come to private practices from many sources, including referrals from primary care practitioners, word of mouth from current patients, advertisements, and increasingly, social networking.

Do you know which referral sources are actually producing new patients for you, and which are a waste of time and money? Is that expensive print or online ad worth the cost? Is the time and money you’ve invested in your office’s Facebook page bringing in patients or alienating them? How many patients call your office on the recommendation of a friend or relative? Most physicians have no idea, and worse, no idea how to find out.

Here’s how: Tracking. Unless you track your new patients, you are guessing at the effectiveness of each of your marketing techniques. And almost certainly, at least some of those guesses are flat out wrong, and thus a needless expense.

Tracking is the process of discovering exactly what prompted each new patient to call your office and not a competitor’s. How do you obtain this information? You ask.

Each person who calls your office for the first time must be asked a simple question: "How did you hear about our practice?" Your receptionist should have a tracking form – on screen if you have electronic health records or on paper otherwise – to record the patient’s answers in various categories, with space allowed to record more-detailed answers from those who volunteer them.

Your receptionists may need some time to adjust to the new routine; they may even resist. Explain that it’s the most vital piece of marketing information that they collect. Make it clear that tracking is now an essential component of every first-time phone call.

If you have a website that allows patients to make appointments directly, you can add tracking questions to your online forms. Make the answers mandatory, not optional, and collect them regularly. (Some Web applications do this automatically.)

Assign someone to collect and compile the information at the end of each day; data that are ignored are useless.

At first you’ll want to analyze the data on a daily and weekly basis; after your basic referral patterns become clear, monthly analyses should be sufficient, since you are only looking for changes.

The results may surprise you. A plastic surgeon friend who began tracking last year, at my suggestion, was stunned to discover that a large, expensive billboard ad on a main thoroughfare through town was attracting no calls at all, while a modest online blog generated several calls a week. In addition, his glossy practice newsletter, produced at great expense by a publicity firm, generated wide praise from current patients but attracted no new ones.

It is also wise to track cancellations. When a patient calls to cancel an appointment, have your receptionists ask why, politely. You already (I hope) document cancellations in the patients’ charts because it is important clinical information. It will take only a bit more effort to generate a separate compilation of reasons for these cancellations. We assume that patients cancel when their problems resolve, but if there are other reasons, you need to know what they are.

Remember, dissatisfied patients will not usually take the time to tell you why they are dissatisfied. They simply cancel their follow-up visit and never return. And in this era of online doctor rating services, disgruntled patients tend to speak up, while happy patients remain silent.

If you take the trouble to inquire, you may be able to correct the problem and persuade the patient to stay. Even if it’s too late, you will at least know what the problem is, and you can take steps to prevent it from costing you other patients. Tracking is a great opportunity to improve your service, and to show patients that you care what they think about you and your office.

Appointments canceled online are the easiest to overlook, so add some "exit questions" to your website’s cancellation form, if you have one. Assign someone to review online cancellations daily, and add the data to your phone compilation. Again, patients who leave significant complaints when they cancel should be contacted as soon as possible.

Make tracking a habit. You will no longer have to guess what brings patients to your office and what drives them away; you will know. Your marketing budget will be spent on tools that actually work, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that your practice is under better control – and "on track."

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J.

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