Saturday, March 20, 2004

A Slow Week

No patients this week. Even though I wasn't seeing patients, I did accomplish some things.

Because I had plenty of time, I finally filled out applications to become a participating provider for Aetna, Blue Shield and Pacificare this week. I had filled one out for Blue Cross, but since it was from over one year ago (did I mention that I'd been planning on going solo for a while?), I thought I should request a new application form and use the latest contract. Who knows? It might have changed since last year.

I still have to send off the Medicare application, too. Unfortunately, I recently read about delays, some as long as 4 months, in approving Medicare enrollment for physicians. So it may take me a while.

I went to a "networking" reception one evening this past week, sponsored by our local education foundation which raises money to supplement our public school system. The idea is that local businesses help donate services and money to the schools/fundraising activities, and in return the education foundation helps promote local businesses. I did meet several new business people, including one who is the business manager of an established rehab medicine clinic. His wife works at Kaiser and said good things about me to her husband, so he suggested we meet for lunch some time and discuss how we can help each other.

I tried calling back some of the patients I had seen the week before to ask them how they were doing, but I only reached their answering machines. Still, I left messages because I think it's a good idea to follow up by phone and let them know you care about them. I sent an elderly patient information about personal medical alarms, in case she "falls and can't get up". (Nostalgic video here.)

I've also been wondering what else I can do to bring more patients into my practice. The weekly newspaper ads have not generated business, although I know people are seeing them because they tell me.

Like all physicians, I get a lot of "throwaway journals", journals that I don't have time or interest in reading. One of them used to be Medical Economics. But I have to say that since I became interested in going solo, I've found it to be a valuable resource. Every issue seems to have at least one horror story, like this one. Brrr! That one gave me the willies!

This article from Medical Economics discusses some marketing ideas, as well as some cautions against bad ideas:
Novelty is one thing, but you don't want to step over the line that separates a professional business from the mundane. So think twice before including an ad for your practice in a coupon pack, amid notices for discount pizza, dry cleaning, and lawn services. "That can be detrimental to your image," says Santa Rosa, CA, management consultant Keith Borglum—who also cringes when he sees doctors' faces on supermarket shopping carts.

Consultant Betsy Nicoletti, in Springfield, VT, recalls another example of inappropriate advertising: A primary care physician was trying to lure patients away from a walk-in clinic in Vermont's ski area. "He ran a series of ads," says Nicoletti. "The first one featured a picture of his mother and the caption, 'Hi, I'm Dr. Smith's mother. Go to him because he's a great guy.' Then he ran pictures of his father, his father-in-law—even his dog—all with the plea, 'Go to Dr. Smith because he's a great guy.'

"If you want to be noticed, that certainly does it, but you have to be careful about the message. This one just says, 'I'm desperate.'

I hope I'm never that desperate.

The best suggestion I've heard was from other physicians who have gone solo, too. One suggested I could see patients who have insurance, and hold on to their bill until I get approved, and then send it for reimbursement. Or I could take their regular copayment, and write off whatever the insurer would have paid me. The upside is that I could start building up my practice now. A downside is that I don't get as much money now, plus later when I can bill their insurer I would have to use the lower paying "established patient" codes rather than the "new patient" codes. Since I am not making any money now seeing zero patients, any income that I can generate seems like a positive to me.

I did come up with a marketing idea, sort of. We are having an upcoming local "Relay for Life" to raise money for cancer research, which seems like a natural tie-in for a family doctor. I left a message for one of the organizers, offering to help, although I'm not sure exactly how. Free cancer screening? Discounts on lipid profiles? $10 discounts for relay participants? Just donating money (which I am running out of)? Run/walk the Relay myself? Free Brains in a Dish? (Or is that one of those "bad marketing ideas"? Yeah, I thought so.)