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How to expand your practice list

Dr T Al Mahmud advises how practices can attract new patients and compete with private providers

By Taluc Mahmud

Dr T Al Mahmud advises how practices can attract new patients and compete with private providers

The idea of actively marketing services to win more patients is uncomfortable for many GPs. However, our patients are now fair game for private healthcare providers. These are usually large organisations and expert in marketing.

In general practice, our strength lies in our established and strong relationships with patients. Our best strategy is to ensure we deliver precisely what patients want.

It is worth making a plan to ensure your practice is fulfilling the needs of both current and new patients. Work out where you are, where you want to get to and how to get there – then make sure your patients know you have arrived.

Get to know your patients

Analyse your practice list Look at the demographics of your practice and its public health parameters. These can tell you who your new patients are likely to be and what their needs are.

Identify frequent attenders: Analyse whether they have chronic illnesses and unmet physical or emotional needs that might justify developing new services.

Develop profiles of new patients: Ensure you know how new patients came across your practice and the particular services that made them want to join.

Spot the trends: Look at how your list has changed over time, the number of patients who have left, new patients and so forth.

Find out what your patients want

Find out exactly what your patients like and don't like about your practice, what they wish you were providing – and what they could get elsewhere.

Review your QOF patient survey Consider splitting the patient questionnaire into three sections – for doctors, nurses and administrative staff. Note down the name of the person the patient saw, since this allows staff performance to be compared and can be included in appraisals.

Ask patients what they want Talk to frequent attenders and your patient group. If options are available for new services, you could put them to patients in a short survey.

Learn from mistakes If patients are leaving, ask them why. Identify areas of concern and fix them. Aim to learn from complaints, and analyse mistakes such as administrative errors.

Gain first-hand experience Try your own practice as a patient. Make an appointment (make sure you wear a disguise). Look at the waiting and clinical rooms and gauge the atmosphere. Can you identify things that could be improved?

Learn from the competition Look at the service specification for new providers, such as opening hours and the clinical services they provide. Decide if it is cost-effective for your practice to provide a similar service. Consider working with other practices to provide this collectively. Also look at private clinics. Compare the decor and provision of information with that of your own practice. Identify areas of yours that need improvement and discuss them at a practice meeting. Real examples carry a lot of weight.

Improve service delivery

Once you have an idea of what you want to do to improve your practice, make sure your staff are engaged with the process.

Get input on how to make changes: Get input from as many stakeholders as possible. This makes your assessment robust and encourages ownership. You should consult not only the staff member assigned to work on the project but all partners, clinical and administrative staff.

Agree goals: Make sure all staff and partners are committed to providing a high-quality service and a consistent message to patients. Agree realistic standards for the practice and ensure there is minimal variation from these. Ensure that processes are efficient.

Connect with patients: Try to connect with patients and accommodate their needs, as far as you possibly can. Get involved in the local community, and consider providing education and a noticeboard in the waiting room with local events or information.

Be prepared for resistance: It is inevitable that you will meet resistance to change. There is a difference between staff and patients with genuine concerns who are amenable to compromise and those who are downright obstructive. It is important to engage at an early stage to resolve issues. The chances are that these people will end up championing and implementing change. Ensure that misinformation is managed and, if and when errors are made, share the experience with all concerned.

Keep patients happy

It is important to offer a memorable and positive experience to patients.

Welcome patients Ensure your staff and doctors are considerate and knowledgeable, so the practice is welcoming.

Empower your patients Involve your patients in running the practice through your patient forum. Create a relaxed atmosphere at these meetings by providing a bite to eat, and brainstorm both the strengths and weaknesses of your practice. Collect patient emails and use them when you send out newsletters and single question surveys.

Give patients tools to help themselves Consider setting up chronic disease education sessions (these could be run by any appropriate healthcare professional). Patient education will reduce demand as well as improve satisfaction.

Ensure patients have the tools to help themselves so that they or their carers have ownership of their health. Print or email information sheets during consultations and ensure that patients with chronic diseases have management plans.

Attract new patients

Develop a plan to attract new patients, but take note of the GMC guidance – go to and click on archive, then advertising.

Develop marketing materials Aim to develop practice leaflets and a website. Marketing materials should be clear, well written and attractive. Test your marketing materials to make sure they have the desired effect.

Publicise new services Ensure any new specialist services you invest in are well publicised.

Consider increasing your practice boundary Check whether your practice boundaries match natural geographical boundaries, such as trunk roads and rivers. Be aware of where your patients are registering from. Ask your receptionists if there are a lot of patients apparently clustering from a specific area – you may want to expand your boundaries to accommodate them. You will of course need to inform your PCT.

Dr T Al Mahmud is a GP in Hounslow, west London

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