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Thu 18 Sep 2008 04:00 AM

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Filling in the blanks

By this stag in your practice planning, business plans have turned to blueprints, and those blueprints into the shell of a medical practice. In the penultimate article in this series, MT looks at getting your practice online and into the market.

By this stag in your practice planning, business plans have turned to blueprints, and those blueprints into the shell of a medical practice. In the penultimate article in this series, MT looks at getting your practice online and into the market.

Opening a practice can be a nerve-wracking experience. The exact moment the building process is at its most stressful also happens to be the exact time you need to start thinking about marketing.

Too many projects need jump-starting in their early months because doctors lose sight of the very real fact that a facility needs patients, even more than it needs that perfect finish on the reception desk.

On top of this, all practices hoping to compete in modern medicine require a sound IT structure. It is one thing to recruit a full staff for your clinic, but it is another to integrate the practice team with a new computer system. Setting up an IT system in a few days is possible, but it is almost certainly a bad idea, and definitely not conducive to devising and launching a marketing campaign, at the same time.

Tech-no chances

It is never too soon to start thinking about how you want your IT system to operate. It is rare for physicians to have much experience of - or aptitude - in IT, and it can be an easy topic to brush under the newly-laid reception room carpet. Doctors don't spend all those years at medical school to waste time worrying about system integrity and data caches.

So the advice is to take a proactive approach and pay an expert to worry about those things. An amateurish approach to IT only leads to a professional disaster for the entire practice. "IT is one of those things where when it is working it is great, but the moment it stops working everyone starts running around like headless chickens," warns Bruce Richards, director of UK-based Hicom technology.

However, at least a cursory understanding of the practice system and where danger areas exist is needed to protect yourself. Otherwise, Richards notes, a simple data overload could bring your practice to a grinding halt.

The key is to start from the ground up. Addressing how your practice's IT will actually function sounds like a job for an expert, but the best systems are guided by simplicity and specific user-requests. They might be the IT expert but no-one understands better the workflow and speciality requirements of a practice than those who work there.

Obviously experience of other systems is important, and it's a good idea to try and remember the inefficiencies and bottlenecks of previous systems, so you can avoid them in your own. This is the chance to create an IT process that is specifically attuned to your practice. Also important to remember is that with technology, being ahead of the competition can have some disadvantages but falling being behind can be disastrous.

Costs, for example can mount up. Look at older facilities that have had to pay for migrating to electronic medical records (EMRs), warns Dr Michael D. Miller, author of the health policy and communications blog, healthpolcom. "There are very large upfront costs for hardware, software, training, and converting paper records into an electronic format," he says.

But for start-ups the benefits of EMRs cannot be ignored, he adds. ‘Electronic medical records have the potential to improve quality and reduce costs.

"They increase physicians' billing revenue by enabling them to provide more accurate and complete information to third-party payers."

As always with IT, however, the vital point is to maintain a balance between the technology available and a practice's daily needs.

Getting the brand together

It can seem almost disingenuous to talk about marketing as a stage to accomplish on your way to opening a practice. Marketing should be a fundamental and perpetual process for your organisation - the moment you think you have ‘finished' the marketing stage then you are placing the facility's name, and all the work it took to build that name, in the hands of fate.

Yet physicians at busy practices often boast that they don't need to advertise, or worry about marketing campaigns, because the flow of patients is seemingly endless.

This is dangerous, however, especially in the Middle East where patients are fickle. If you don't fight to stay at the forefront of your sector, the wind can change very quickly. Look at the money continually spent on marketing by global leaders such as Coca Cola or Nike, your practice is no different.

Physicians from North America and Europe who are starting up in the Middle East should be aware that a slight overhaul of marketing techniques will be needed if they are going to make an impact.

The Middle East, and especially the Gulf, can appear to be a very brand-focused part of the world, yet beneath the veneer it is still very much a word of mouth society.

Stellar advertising rates might make the market appear inaccessible to smaller players. But for those physicians ready to get their hands dirty, it can be quite simple to promote their services, and the launch of the practice.

One of the most fruitful outlets is local media. While media sales managers will want you to pay for adverts, most editorial staff welcomes the input of physicians on relevant topics. Getting featured in articles is one of the simplest ways of letting the market know you have arrived.

Dr Alya Ahmed, a paediatrician at Dubai's American Primary Care Clinic says: "We undertake several levels of advertising and carry out public health campaigns, which allow us to personalise our message."

"But in a market where every article you write gets vetted and sometimes factually changed, the best solution we've found is to have a presence in somebody else's story."

It almost goes without saying nowadays that an online presence for medical practices is no longer a novelty but a necessity. Designing an attractive website and uploading clean, informative copy should be a pretty straightforward process. But it is always surprising how bad a job many practices make of it.

As in the case of IT systems, it is well worth paying for a web-designer to develop your online presence. Home-made sites look unprofessional and can dissuade potential patients. A slick site is a sound investment.

New DOC on the block

Whenever you enter a new market it is only natural that you want to attract as much attention as possible. There is no point starting your marketing campaign the day that you open, or you will have to rely solely on the maladies of passers-by. But in attempting to blaze a trail it is easy to forget that other professionals already inhabit the market.

And in the Middle East, that market is fairly small. Strong-arm tactics are likely to see you black-balled before your doors even open for business. Aggressive marketing is essential to any start-up, but if you fail to combine it with a personal introduction to the relevant professionals in your field, you will come over as either aloof or brash.

Both of which will require hours of bridge-building later on. Most practices rely to a degree on professional referrals so going out to ‘press the flesh', as they say in business, is a cost-effective way of building a base of doctors who will refer to you in the future.

As any physician knows, doctors are busy people so it is important to treat these meetings as interviews and demonstrate quickly why you are the right person to complement their practice. Explain exactly what you might be able to offer them and the pateints they may send to see you.

Most importantly for the Middle Eastern market, is essential to make it crystal clear that once their pateint no longer needs your specialist knowledge for their treatment, then they will be returned.

Try to carve a niche within your own immediate locality first, before attempting to spread the net further. The mantra is; start small, aim high.

THE FACTS: MT's practice planning essentials

Invest in the best:Get expert advice for a usable and future-proof IT system.

Each to their own:Tailor IT systems to your own speciality and practice.

Public figure:Get yourself noticed by being quoted in local media.

Web MD:Websites are a crucial and easy way of standing out from the competition.

Market carefully:Be sensitive to others in the market or risk being ostracised.

Meet and greet:Develop professional relationships though informal meetings.

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

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