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Ten ways to face down competition from a Darzi centre

Hemmed in by seven Darzi centres all wanting a share of his practice list, Dr Michael Taylor had to come up with new ways to hang onto his patients. Here he shares the secrets of his success

Marketing isn't rocket science – it isn't about spreading false truths or spending lots of money. It is about making sure patients know that what you offer is closer to they want than your competitors.

I bought a dozen books on marketing after I realised there would be seven new Darzi practices within a four-mile radius of my small practice. To meet their targets, the closest practice needed a quarter of my patients and the same from my two closest neighbours – prompting me to draw up a battle plan to revamp our practice image.

Competition may not have entered your high street yet, but the Government's plans to erase practice boundaries will ensure that it soon will. Here are my tips to help you keep your patients and gain even more.

1. Know what patients want

We think we know what patients want, but it can come as a surprise when you actually ask them about their priorities. Don't wait for negative comments to find their way onto NHS Choices website – ask your patients to be critical.

We set up a Sceptical Friends Group, whose composition depends on the task in hand. It is not fully representative of the practice list, but is made up of people whose opinion we respect.

We also regularly form mini-focus groups of four to seven patients to discuss current issues or a facet of the practice. The pattern is usually similar:

a) a few questions prepared by us

b) the opportunity for free conversation

c) conclusions for improvement.

We report the results in the newsletter, sending a fuller report to all participants.

2. Create a 10-year vision

Sit down with your partners and decide what your practice should be like and what you want to achieve. Where do you want to be in 10 years' time?

Check the practice has the three foundation blocks of good clinical, business and political skills. You should function well as a generalist – perhaps with some more specialised skills – but also be skilled at pleasing your patients. Make sure you not only have good political skills, keeping your paymaster happy, but also business acumen (and not just cost containment).

3. Write a mission statement

Drawing up a mission statement is fun and gives a focus for corporate activity that is often absent in general practice.

You may think they are old-fashioned, but a good mission statement will repay the effort many times over.

You can prepare the first draft, but defining the statement should involve as many of the practice team as possible, as it needs to be their mission statement too.

The statement should be:

• short – if it takes more than three breaths to read aloud, it's too long

• durable – concentrate on core function and values as you don't want to change it, at least for a couple of years

• credible – your staff have to believe it

• exciting – so it can be inspirational

• memorable – laminate it and stick it on the wall in prominent positions

• important – make it a key part of your practice.

We came up with: ‘Our mission is to care for the patient by understanding the person. Together we aim to excel.'

4. Make a SMART marketing plan

Just as the mission statement reflects the practice values, your objectives should reflect the mission statement. Each objective in your plan should answer the question ‘where do we want to go?'

SMART objectives should be:

• Specific – precise and unambiguous

• Measurable – include numbers

• Achievable – just do the important ones first

• Realistic – make sure you have the resources to deliver

• Timed – state when you will deliver.

The real skill is to balance the major drivers in your practice. These include your colleagues' wishes for the practice, your staff members' lives and responsibilities, the PCT's demands and the patients' needs.

5. Appoint a leader

We now know where we are going, but how do we get there? Although there are many ways of working together, in reality it is the quality of leadership that will ensure delivery. There are many styles of leadership but don't waste too much time choosing one – the commitment of a senior member of the team is key.

6. Define a budget

When you talk to your partners, start with the fact that marketing will cost money. Save yourself the heartache of preparing for a marketing campaign only to be disappointed when the practice won't come up with the funds. Approval of a modest amount is a statement of intent.

Our practice expenditure on preparing the premises, staff and promotions was about £15,000, but within a year we know this has been well spent as the patient list size has risen by more than 10%.

7. Develop a customer focus

Excellence in customer service is crucial. A satisfied patient is more likely to remain loyal, to recommend you to other patients and to be concordant with agreed plans. They are also less likely to complain formally and (heaven forbid) involve you in legal proceedings. Patients are all different, but their perception is their reality, and their reality must become our reality – uncomfortable as that may be.


8. Think ‘touch points'

Would M&S allow toilets to run out of toilet paper? Would GSK have old magazines in the waiting room? If your premises and staff look smart then the first impression is that your practice is professional. Remember you don't get a second chance to make a good first impression and the sum of each little difference will make your surgery stand out.

9. Make patients feel special

Retention is much better if your patients feel special. Ensure they are recognised and greeted the moment they walk in the door. Touch-screen computers may be more efficient at registering the arrival of patients, but there is nothing to match a receptionist's smile of recognition.

GPs with superior consultation and empathetic skills gave greater patient satisfaction and if you want to keep good staff – make them feel special too.

10. Don't be afraid to advertise

We GPs are often reluctant to advertise services as it risks antagonising colleagues in nearby practices, but not doing so is arguably worse. My good friend Bob Wood put a simple ‘We welcome NHS patients' poster outside his surgery. It cost him £250 and has gained him 100 patients! You get my drift.

Dr Michael Taylor is head of external relations at the Family Doctor Association and is a GP in Heywood, Lancashire

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