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Issue: March 2009 Marketing Your Ocular Allergy Services
CONTINUING EDUCATION Highlights from a live presentation held in November 2008 at the Optometric Management Symposium in Orlando, Fla.

Marketing Your Ocular Allergy Services

Learn how to develop a marketing communication plan to help build your practice.

One of the most important goals to set when developing an ocular allergy practice is to create a marketing communication plan. Once you've outlined what you want to achieve and set benchmarks for reaching your objectives, you're ready to look at the role marketing will play in growing your practice.

For example, if you say, "My year-long project for 2009 is to identify my practice with allergy care in the eyes of my local community," then you want to develop strategies that would facilitate reaching this goal.

The key is to develop your strategy and set an agenda to employ various tactics in 3 months, 4 months and so on. Let your practice goals be the foundation for an effective communication and marketing plan.

This article will discuss the importance of marketing your ocular allergy practice to existing patients and how to attract new patients. It also will provide you with strategies to develop a sound marketing communication plan.

Identifying Allergy Patients

Even in a successful allergy practice, many patients don't present with ocular allergy as a chief complaint. As I mentioned earlier, patients often resort to treating themselves with OTC medications. Do you know which patients use OTC ocular allergy medications? If not, it would be a good idea to start asking every patient at every visit and recording their responses as part of taking a standard case history. If you don't inquire, you'll miss a chance to improve the eye care of these patients, as well as an opportunity to expand your allergy practice.

In addition to asking patients about ocular allergies, you can search your patient database and look for certain ICD-9 codes that relate to previous patient encounters linked to ocular allergies. Once you've identified those patients, you can begin to keep them informed about the new advancements in ocular allergy treatment, such as a once-a-day product like olopatadine 0.2% (Pataday, Alcon Laboratories Inc.).

Meanwhile, you can discover and educate ocular allergy patients by providing pamphlets, fact sheets and other types of educational material in the reception area. Sometimes, displaying a sign explaining the ways you provide medical eye care will inform patients that your practice is much more than eyeglasses and contact lenses. This raises the awareness of patients and encourages them to tell you if they have ocular allergies and if they're using any ocular allergy medications.

Always keep in mind that it's not our place as optometrists to choose which patients we'll offer allergy care based on perceptions about their income. We must deliver the standard of care to all patients each time we see them no matter what. You never want to find yourself in a situation when a patient asks if you can prescribe once-a-day medication that his sister uses and then have to explain why you didn't tell him about it a week earlier.

Broadcasting Your Role

Spreading the word that you provide allergy care is imperative. Patients won't come to you for ocular allergy or tell you they're self-medicating themselves unless they know that you, the primary eyecare provider, are the most qualified to treat this problem.

Placing information in the reception area is a start, but certainly not the finish. You'll need to get the message out through your receptionist, assistants and technicians and during your conversations with each patient. The key is to take advantage of every opportunity to educate patients about what you do and what you can do for them, so they'll associate you with medical eye care and not just with contact lenses and spectacles. Whenever you see a patient, explain your training. Tell them you treat allergies, glaucoma, infections and ocular emergencies. If patients don't know you treat these problems, they'll go to a practitioner who they believe will.

In addition, take a personal interest in your patients. Let them know you care about them and that you're glad they came to see you. Tell them you're the most qualified to diagnose and treat their specific ocular problems, and develop an action plan they can easily follow when they return home.

Go one step further and show patients images taken with your anterior segment camera. Show them what ocular allergy symptoms look like, such as a lid with follicles to illustrate the allergic response.

Finally, drive home the message that your practice is based on clinical excellence by discussing state-of-the-art medications available to treat ocular allergy. Patients will perceive the value of the treatments you discuss and realize they're much better than what they buy over the counter. All of this will help them develop trust in you. They'll seek your advice and recommend you to family and friends.

Planning Marketing Strategies

As you inform each patient that you have the expertise in diagnosing and treating ocular allergy, taking these additional steps can strengthen your internal marketing strategy even more.

Be quick to listen. Listening is an essential marketing tool for several reasons. Patients often say they want convenience in an allergy medication, which is key to compliance. Convenience is a strong marketing tool because it will help you make a clear distinction between a prescription medication and an OTC drug. To determine which medication is best for a patient, ask questions about his lifestyle, his favorite hobbies and outdoor activities in which he participates and the kind of work he does, and listen carefully.

Good listening skills will boost your patients' confidence in your recommendations. You're not just throwing a prescription at them; you're making the best choice for their specific needs and preferences.

Patients don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. So showing an interest in them is one of the best marketing strategies you can employ. Listening and caring are two opportunities to promote yourself and your practice.

Project the right demeanor. In addition to listening and showing you care, your body language, tone of voice and demeanor speak volumes about what you do and the level of confidence and expertise you have.

You have to be excited, passionate, and committed to ocular allergy. You need to have a frank conversation that involves direct eye contact instead of writing on your chart and mumbling something about ocular allergies.

Remember, patients will judge you on the quality of your communication, rather than the quantity, so don't feel as though you need to impress them with your vast knowledge. Communicate with them intelligently on their level.

Make strong recommendations. I often say to patients, "My drug of choice for you is X. It's what I'd recommend to my family members if they had allergies. I want you to use this medication, and I want to follow up with you in 1 week."

You have to be direct with patients. They'll be happy to fulfill your expectations once you set them. Patients are looking for an excuse to be good patients, so you simply need to tell them what it means to be a good patient. Don't leave them guessing about when they need to come back for a follow-up visit or what to do if they need refills. Confidently tell them everything they need to know and answer every question.

Encourage compliance. To encourage compliance, identify what's important to patients and try to accommodate them.

For example, if I have a contact lens wearer who has ocular allergies, prescribing a daily product she needs to use only at night might be the best thing. This way, the patient doesn't have to worry about instilling the medication when she applies her lenses in the morning. Clearly, convenience might be a sticking point for this patient, and your personalized approach will help. Again, you need to present recommendations like this with confidence.

Give thorough instructions. Have you ever had a pharmacist change your prescription to a generic product? It's a frustrating problem that happens frequently. So you need to use a proactive strategy to ensure patients receive the medications you prescribe.

In some cases, you may not mind if the patient uses a generic drug. You can indicate this on the prescription and in your discussion with the patient. But if you don't want the patient to receive a generic medication, discuss this with the patient and indicate it on the prescription slip.

For instance, you might say to the patient, "Often, pharmacists will fill your prescription with a generic brand. But here's why I want you to use this particular medication: It will work better for you and it requires once-a-day dosing. So if the pharmacist tries to switch the drug to a generic brand, say, ‘Thank you for the information, but I prefer to use the drug my doctor prescribed." Jot down your instructions when you write the prescription and explain why you want the brand-name drug.

If many of your patients use the same pharmacies and are often confronted with this issue, you can speak to the pharmacists directly and ask them to fill the prescriptions as you've written them. It won't work 100% of the time, but you'll have better success by taking a proactive approach to prevent pharmacists from undermining your preferred standard of care.

Explain the true cost of OTC drugs. Patients believe that OTC ocular allergy remedies are effective. They believe ocular allergy isn't serious enough to see a doctor. In fact, I often hear, "The reason the over-the-counter marketplace is so valuable is because the products are cheap." But that's not true.

Annually, it costs people about the same amount of money to use pharmaceutical therapy as it does to use OTC medications. Based on research I've done, an average bottle of an OTC ocular allergy drop costs about $9.59. And it requires patients to use several drops per day to control symptoms.

State-of-the-art prescription medications might require just one drop per day. The majority of prescription medications for ocular allergy fall within a Tier 2 or Tier 3 copayment structure — with the latter having a higher deductible. Drug manufacturers often can assist in reducing costs using various programs to make a Tier 3 drug competitive with a Tier 2 medication. Even standard pharmacy benefit plans make the costs of prescription medications competitive with OTC products, not to mention the patient is receiving a far superior drug to treat his condition.

Cost considerations are often on the minds of patients, so it helps to show you're making an effort to save them money.

Succeeding Fast

Your internal marketing strategy, which involves listening, discussing, evaluating and providing a recommendation, takes place in your 15-, 20- or 30-minute appointment slot, so you have to be efficient. Again, the quality of time you spend with patients is key, not the quantity. Efficiency means nothing if you're not effective in communicating your message. Patients always will remember the direct message you convey.

By employing a proactive marketing strategy that begins with your receptionist and other employees, you could easily capture 50% of the allergic population that's already in your practice. And they'll be glad you did. OM

Internal and External Marketing Strategies
■ Send direct mail to existing patients.

■ Hang posters and provide pamphlets in your waiting room.

■ Train staff to discuss ocular allergy with patients.

■ Educate patients about ocular allergy during exams.

Identifying Ocular Allergy Patients
■ Ask patients if they use OTC ocular allergy medications, and record their responses as part of the case history.

■ Search your patient database and look for certain ICD-9 codes that relate to previous patient encounters linked to ocular allergy.

■ Provide educational information in the reception area.

■ Display a sign at the front desk explaining to patients the ways in which you provide medical eye care.

Educating Your Staff
When I visit practices, I'm often surprised that many employees don't understand what having a license to practice optometry allows physicians to do. Does everyone on your staff know what conditions you can treat and what medications you can prescribe? Does everyone know why different eye exams don't cost the same? They may not understand because they don't consider your work in terms of turning education and knowledge into dollars and cents.
It's critically important that you educate everyone in your practice so they can communicate with patients on the phone, in the reception area and in the exam room. Employees have the opportunity to speak with patients much more frequently than you do. So they should be able to educate patients about what services you provide. They're able to help you market yourself as an ocular allergy practitioner and transform your education and knowledge into an economic return.
You can give your staff a script to read over the telephone and clear instructions when it comes to scheduling follow-up appointments for allergy patients. Patients always need a follow-up appointment after you prescribe ocular allergy medication, because you need to know if the patient filled the prescription, has started using it properly and if symptoms have resolved. And you have to indicate in the medical record that you've effectively treated the allergy and resolved the situation. This may not be the last entry in the record, but legally it's important to have.

Marketing to External Customers
As an optometrist, you have many external customers: patients and their relatives, potential patients, allergists, pharmacists, primary care practitioners and more.
These customers can help you expand your practice if you take steps to build mutually beneficial relationships with them. For example, I spent years educating primary care doctors about the role of optometry in diagnosing diabetes, age-related macular degeneration and other ocular problems during telephone conversations and face-to-face lunch and dinner meetings. But how many primary care doctors are referring patients to you for ocular allergy treatment? If the answer is not that many, it's possible they don't know you can diagnose and treat ocular allergy. Or, they may not understand the type of licensing and training you have. Or, perhaps you haven't reached out to them as effectively as you should have.

Begin Networking
One way to get in touch with these practitioners is by contacting local physician group practices. A simple phone call can go a long way to opening the door to future referrals.
The fact that many people treat themselves with OTC allergy medications says we're not educating patients as effectively as we should. People don't know about the state-of-the-art, prescription allergy medications we offer. And while patients have many choices of OTC medications, they don't know they should be seeing an optometrist for allergy.

Attracting Potential Patients
Patients make allergy treatment decisions based on the perception that OTC medications cost less than prescription drugs. To inform potential patients, you can propose an article to your local newspaper on the effects of untreated ocular allergy, such as lost productivity at work and school. You can discuss how your practice is proactive in preventing lost productivity in school as well as the latest treatments available.

Tapping Existing Patients
To educate existing patients about your expertise in diagnosing and treating ocular allergy, you can use mailings targeted to patients and seasonal referral promotions. For example, you can ask your satisfied patients to refer a friend who has allergies. The best compliment in the world is a satisfied patient who refers a friend, colleague or loved one. As long as there's pollen in the air and dust mites in the pillows, there are plenty of allergy patients out there for you. You just have to bring them in.

John M.B. Rumpakis, OD, MBA, is founder, president, and CEO of Practice Resource Management, Inc., a consulting, appraisal and management firm for healthcare professionals.

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