Doctors Can Practice PR to Survive Ills of Profession – Los Angeles Business Journal
One of the criticisms of the film “Eyes Wide Shut” was its depiction of Tom Cruise as a young, extremely wealthy physician.
As an astute reviewer pointed out, that’s too unrealistic.
The days of a medical degree equaling a house in Bel Air with a two-Mercedes garage are gone. With doctors joining unions, and physicians groups filing for bankruptcy, it becomes readily apparent that in the medical profession, the playing field has changed.
But in too many cases, the business philosophy and strategies have not.
The field of medicine has been dragged – kicking and screaming – into the business world, where accountants and administrators have in many cases usurped the position of health care professionals, becoming the engines that drive the profession.
For years, physicians were in charge of their own destinies. Although some were business-savvy, to be so was not always a prerequisite for a successful practice.
But in this era of managed care, physicians who traditionally have been ill-prepared to function in the business world now find themselves in the unenviable position of taking a hands-on crash course in business survival.
Perhaps the most difficult concept for a physician to grasp is the role of Public Relations in building a successful practice/business. The common perception has been that P.R. was anathema. And that belief was not unique to the health profession.
Not long ago, bankers, attorneys and others were taught that promotion was wrong. It was a moral issue. Being good at what one does was enough. Calling attention to it was unseemly.
In the health care world, apart from being perceived as vulgar, marketing was considered unnecessary. It was assumed that patients would automatically and miraculously come forever. As a result, physicians were sheltered from the demands placed on other businesses. It was the “Field of Dreams” of professions – open a practice and they will come.
Rejecting Smoke and Mirrors
Health professionals also have a tendency to view marketing as hawking – much like a barker at a carnival or a crass used-car salesman trying to lure unsuspecting victims. It’s the thought of the coarse, smoke-and-mirror, hit-them-over-the-head style of publicity that understandably terrifies many in the medical field.
It is, therefore, difficult for physicians to view public relations as an integral part of a successful practice.
But just as the image of a physician giving a patient a stiff drink and a bullet to bite before performing surgery is archaic, those P.R. stereotypes have nothing to do with the reality of an intelligent, effective media campaign that educates and informs the media and the public. Used effectively, P.R. can usher in new concepts and perspectives, and shape the ideas of a community and a nation.
To reach that end, physicians need to view themselves as educators. After all, we live in the information age and no profession, field or practice can avoid its effects. Professionals who understand the process and actively take control of the information are the ones who will succeed.
Twenty years ago, a debate about medical marketing would have been unthinkable. Both the American Medical Association and the American Dental Association strictly forbade advertising and promotional activities. In 1975, after the Supreme Court ruled that antitrust law prohibited the American Bar Association from regulating how lawyers run their businesses, both the AMA and the ADA changed their stance, fearing lawsuits from physicians.
Learning the Language
Today, savvy hospitals and physicians view public relations as an integral component of their business strategy. They are learning that they must change their perceptions to remain competitive.
But few have really come to terms with the process. It’s not enough to simply hire a professional and continue as before; a change in attitude and outlook is required.
For example, when it comes to communicating, doctors are used to presenting scientific data to their peers. They are trained to think in terms of studies and statistics, whereas the public and media both understand and respond more favorably to anecdotal stories.
Of course, this does not apply only to those in the health care field. Many professionals can speak the jargon of their particular field, but this makes for a very insular form of communication. All business professionals can benefit from learning to speak the public’s language and honing their ability to communicate.
Is the fact that medicine must come of age as a business necessarily a bad thing?
Considering the fact that information control and distribution will be the currency of the new millennium, learning to effectively manage one’s image and message will soon be viewed as Business 101.
Anthony Mora is president and chief executive of Anthony Mora Communications Inc., an L.A.-based public relations firm.
Entrepreneur’s Notebook is a regular column contributed by EC2, The Annenberg Incubator Project, a center for multimedia and electronic communications at the University of Southern California. Contact James Klein at (213) 743-1759 with feedback and topic suggestions.