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A well thought out marketing strategy will pay dividends in terms of increased practice profile ­ here managing partner Deb Farnworth-Wood provides insight on how to market the practice successfully

General practice is commercially unlike most other businesses in that we rarely need to compete vigorously with other practices. Tight controls prevent an over-supply of GPs within an area and there is no need to persuade patients that they need a doctor! Despite this is still a need for a planned approach to raising the profile of the practice and marketing its services.

At East Quay, we have a blanket policy of openly telling our colleagues, competitors and clients what we do. We have no secrets and there are several reasons for this.

First, we care passionately about the quality of care we offer our patients. We like to benchmark ourselves with other practices to ensure our services are the best they can be ­ you need to communicate to do this.

Second, we feel we need to maintain our credibility with our PCT. If we don't tell them about our plans and achievements, how will they know? When we do something really great we also like to tell the strategic health authority too.

This approach ensures we are at the forefront of PCT developments and are consulted by the PCT when they need an opinion which in turn ensures we are well informed.

Third, when other organisations hear about projects, they may see links with their own objectives and this can provide a stimulus for joint working. Many aspects of patient care touches upon the work of other agencies and more can be achieved working together than alone. Networking is a great aspect of marketing.

Finally, recognition is important for the whole practice team. We enjoy training others on our methods as this adds variety to staff roles, helps them feel proud of the organisation they work for and provides the impetus for continual improvement.

There are two main areas of focus for marketing: internal (staff and other occupants of the building) and external (PCT, patients and anyone else).

External marketing

There are a number of simple marketing tools available and many of them are already in place, the most obvious being practice booklets. But because these are mostly handed out to potential new patients and tend to be updated infrequently, they rarely deliver the latest news and information. They are, however, essential for highlighting core services and administrative matters and for giving prospective patients a feel for the surgery.

Practices looking to increase their lists could arrange for booklets to be pushed through the letterboxes of new housing estates, or liaise with local builders who would welcome the availability of local GP services as a selling point for their properties and are often willing to mention this in their brochures.

Although expensive to install, a plasma screen in the waiting room, showing a rolling presentation throughout the day, is an incredibly effective means of marketing.

PowerPoint presentations can be quickly and easily edited to provide up-to-date information. They also provide an opportunity to remind patients about a variety of administrative matters too.

We use our screen to advertise special events, highlight specific services and generally help patients to get the best out of the services available. We know the screen works, because after using it to tell patients that the majority of our telephone calls come in on a Monday and to ask them to consider this when calling, we suddenly found that within weeks, the majority of calls were coming in on a Tuesday instead!

Fliers are a great way of grabbing patient attention, but they need to be well-targeted or they are lost in the reams of other patient literature that we have in the surgery.

Receptionists can hand them to patients as they arrive, and if you have an in-house pharmacy you may be able to get the pharmacist to co-operate and give them out with prescriptions, getting even better coverage. Some 7,000 A5 leaflets cost the practice about £250, which is much better than tying up the photocopier for weeks.

It is a good idea to maintain a list of local papers and radio stations to e-mail press releases to. Local radio stations are usually able to offer free community spots for public services, and also offer reasonable advertising rates. Short air slots are useful to give patients key messages and we use these to promote self-care for seasonal ailments in an attempt to avoid unnecessary consultations.

Do bear in mind the target age of the listeners of local radio stations and consider whether or not this is appropriate to the services you are trying to promote.

Press releases to newspapers are easy to do, but you do need to be prepared for disappointment. If the paper gets a more exciting story, it may leave out your item or, worse still, cut it in half, making it disjointed or incomplete. One way to reduce this risk is to take out an advertorial.

This is where the paper writes a feature on your business or an event you may be running, and asks associated companies to take out an accompanying advertisement. Often the feature writer is happy for the content to be driven by the practice.

It is also a good idea to try to develop a relationship with your local newspaper, feeding them useful information as well as the commercial aspects you might want them to print.

The annual report is another opportunity to update interested parties of the practice's progress over the past 12 months, but by the time it is read much of the information is out of date and things have moved on.

Nevertheless, we still invite a member of staff from each department to write a little bit about the past year in the hope that sharing perspectives of good and bad events during the year will lead to greater appreciation of the issues facing the different areas of the practice.

Newsletters are popular among patients but can be time-consuming and expensive to produce. There is also nothing worse than old out-of-date newsletters being left in waiting rooms, so make sure old copies are sought out and destroyed!

A number of companies now offer to produce newsletters for surgeries, seeking advertisements from local companies to fund them.

Our patient forum has helped on many projects including lobbying for a bus service to the new surgery, encouraging patients to complete practice questionnaires and even showing other patients how to use the computerised check in system. These softer marketing approaches supplement more direct methods.

The majority of practices now have a website that can be used to provide latest news and new information. Again, every effort should be made to ensure out-of-date information is removed and that patients know your website address.

Internal marketing

This is area often overlooked or taken for granted, but without internal marketing we cannot expect staff to be aware of our services, goals and achievements.

As practices become larger, offering more services and employing greater numbers of staff, the logistics of keeping everyone informed becomes more complex. Some useful tools for internal information are:

·Weekly/monthly newsletters (on paper or by e-mail)


·Copies of information produced for patients

·A practice intranet


Where possible, staff should be treated as individuals with information going to them personally rather than to a department as a whole. This enables the staff member to take the information away and read it at their leisure rather than rush it.

Staff noticeboards are notorious for out-of-date information and should be managed carefully or they will be ignored.

Marketing strategies often evolve slowly over a period of time. It is not necessary to use all of these tools at once and it makes sense to try different ideas to see how they work for you.

Deb Farnworth-Wood is the managing partner at New East Quay Medical Centre, Bridgwater, Somerset

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