Is becoming a “center of excellence” the fastest track to success? Not so much anymore
A famous aphorism, attributed to a book published in 1928 by author John A. Shedd, goes, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.” Never has there been a better metaphor for the clash of principles inherent in the private practice of medicine.
Healthcare providers are trained….no, indoctrinated not to take chances in practicing their profession. There’s a good reason. History is full of snake-oil remedies that not only didn’t cure anything but made people sicker or killed them.
As a consequence, modern medicine is layered with controls, protocols, regulations and oversight. Before the medical establishment – notably the FDA and various professional societies – blesses any new medicine or treatment, it must first go through the usual randomized, placebo-controlled gamut of studies, trials and peer review.
The net effect is a take-no-chances mindset among healthcare providers. Stay in the pack. Don’t get ahead of the crowd. Rightfully so. As a patient, it’s my health and my life at stake. Three cheers for evidence-based medicine.
Clash of realities
Then there’s the business of medicine. Uh-oh. The B-word – its implications go against much of what doctors are formally taught.
After a decade or more in education and training that stresses the importance of following the flock, doctors are thrown headfirst into the real world to scratch out a living on their own. The result is that most become small-business owners.
According to a study by the American Medical Association, 53 percent of physicians are self employed, and 60 percent work in practices wholly owned by doctors.
The AMA found that two out of five doctors (39.8 percent) own their own practices, and an equal portion (41.1 percent) work in a single-specialty practice.
These days younger physicians are discovering that owning your own practice is hardly a sure-fire meal ticket. Particularly in large cities, physicians have to compete with each other for quantity and quality of patients, more so for those in surgery-based practices.
Increasingly, most specialists we meet at professional conferences and elsewhere are in search of more patients, better quality patients (for an improved payor mix), or both. The great majority want better educated, better insured patients who are generally healthier, follow instructions well and experience better outcomes.
How to get them? The answer is almost eerily simple. But it takes a leap of faith for which doctors are not formally trained.
Accentuate the positive – differentiate
Psst. Here’s the world’s worst-kept secret: Patients can’t tell much difference between doctors. Heck, doctors often can’t tell much difference, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., surgeons who repair other surgeons’ errors).
Faced with multiple buying choices, any healthcare consumer looks for differences. What makes one doctor different and memorable?
The answer lies in branding. It’s a tired old word in need of a simple definition. Here’s ours: A brand is a claim of distinction.
A strong brand makes a sharp distinction and helps make the choice to buyers (patients) abundantly clear. The most enduring brands say in effect, “There’s us and then there’s everyone else trying to be as good as us.”
The best brands evoke indelible one-word meanings in the public mind: overnight for FedEx, prestige for Rolex watches, techno-cool for Apple computers and phones.
Almost any brand can be reinforced by a memorable way of saying it. However, strong, lasting brands are built on what you do, not just what you say. Strategic brands are actionable.
Let culture be your guide
The strongest brands come from inherent traits of a business’s culture. These are not brand distinctions but one-off brand differentiators. Every business has a unique personality stemming from a solitary culture. A brand built on your practice’s culture cannot be imitated.
Fact is, every consumer really wants only one question answered: What’s in it for me?
It’s a fair question. The most successful sellers of products and services (watches, computers and – yes – healthcare providers) are those who give the most satisfying answers to the WIIFM question.
In the outdoor retailer category, L.L. Bean comes to mind. Their customers can return any purchase any time for a refund or exchange. Differentiator? Bean want’s your satisfaction no matter the cost.
Healthcare brands built on actionable differentiators
- Mayo Clinic offers same-day appointments.
- The Surgery Center of Oklahoma – a multi-specialty facility owned by 40 surgeons and anesthesiologists – publishes on its website the prices for 194 procedures, from Achilles heel repair to treatment of trigger finger.
- Kaiser Permanente is known for its long traditions of innovations, a pioneer in the HMO concept as well as in healthcare IT, having been the first to develop the most expensive yet comprehensive patient portal well ahead of other healthcare organizations.
Yes, some of these are big names. But even solo-physician practices have brands, frequently hidden from even themselves. Many have strong brands and don’t know it.
Here are a few differentiators we’ve helped identify and/or develop for clients
- A big city’s only female physician in a traditionally all-male specialty.
- Exemplary willingness to go the extra mile by offering evening and Saturday clinic hours.
- Exceptional responsiveness by promising to answer any online question from any visitor to a practice’s website (not just patients) within one business day.
- Treatment exclusivity – e.g., an orthopedic practice that can do total hip replacements as outpatient surgery in as little as four hours.
- Facility exclusivity – e.g., the only practice in town with a full-time, dedicated CyberKnife radio surgery center.
How memorable is your flag?
When you’ve spent half your life preparing to be a great healer, it can be tough to accept that healing skills may not guarantee a successful practice. And it can be harder to go against professional taboos on self-promotion and self-distinction.
But the best news is this: Being different is no more than being yourself. Defining your values, your principles, your contributions to the world, and the flag you salute everyday is half the battle. The other half is telling others.
What flag do you wish to plant on the hilltop? And how different does it look from the others already there? If it’s not distinctive enough, begin the journey of sewing a new flag that is only yours, one that cannot be copied.