If you want your GP practice to be seen by current and potential patients you must ensure that it’s heard above the din. How do you reach out to the public? Newsletters, email, print media, social media? It’s all about striking the right note and letting people know about the care, services and support that you provide. Practice Business explores how you can improve communications with patients – present and future
Much of a GP practice’s revenue depends on their registered patient list and the capitation revenue that this brings in. Ensuring that you have a growing list of loyal, satisfied patients requires some work and this starts long before a patient enters your practice and will continue long after they leave – we’re talking about marketing in its many guises.
Marketing can be time-consuming but developing a savvy strategy from the get-go can save you time in the long-run and can help you get ahead – without expending money or other resources.
Identify your key objectives and set out to achieve them
First thing’s first – what are your key objectives? Are you spreading the word to attract new patients or, perhaps, it’s new practice staff you’re after? Do you want to improve communications with existing patients and alert them to new services or initiatives or to give your practice a standout voice within general practice locally? The answers to these questions will provide your key performance indicators – your KPIs.
Once you have set out your KPIs – and quantified them – you’ll need to develop your marketing strategy based on how best to engage your target audience and the resources available to you help you to deliver this. Ask patients for feedback; do they use social media, prefer email newsletters over postal, or would they benefit from additional information on the practice website? In terms of resources – look internally; is there someone one who is adept at social media, at writing or design? Do you have the funds to buy any of these skill sets in if not?
As your understanding of marketing continues to evolve, here are a few key avenues to consider on your journey to engagement:
There is a focus across the NHS on patient-centred care – this approach should extend to your marketing too. Word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing tactic and this begins within the practice and the journey you take your patients on. Experience is everything and can be impacted by how your practice receptionist greets patients and answers ‘phone calls and even waiting room décor. Asking for feedback (and acting on it!) will make a difference to how you are perceived and how your practice is spoken about.
According to this year’s GP Patient Survey, 83.8% of patients describe their overall GP experience as ‘good’ – so how can practices capitalise on this? The good news is it’s all down to hard work – so, anyone can do it. The following are some key considerations:
• Engagement: the trick here is to communicate with patients rather than at them.
• Patient list: what is your patient demographic, or that of your catchment area? How can you better cater to their needs? It’s generalist and difficult the larger the patient list – but can be worth it.
• Staff turnover: high staff turnover will disrupt continuity of care and erode the relationships that naturally develop between staff and patients. Having a friendly practice team, proud of their practice and the work they do, can lead to a better experience for patients.
• Feedback: this is essential but should not be forced – consider a feedback box, or interactive display, in the waiting room; alternatively, consider a virtual patient participation group (PPG) which will allow patients to submit feedback when it’s convenient. Act on or acknowledge feedback where possible and remember that a complaint left unanswered can ferment.
• Social media (scroll down for more) is a source of virtual engagement and practice communication – plus it’s easy to use.
How do people find your practice in the first place? In the digital age, your website is where the majority of patients – and others – will go for information on your practice; having a responsive website that is easy to navigate, with all of the up-to-date information that visitors to your site will need is key.
Having a responsive website will also help to boost your SEO – or search engine optimisation – rankings, as Google appreciates a responsive site, designed to suit the device it’s being accessed on. What is SEO? SEO aims to increase the visibility of your website in search engines – thus expanding your reach. There are a variety of ways to do this; the UK Domain provides some useful guidance.
The main thing for practice managers to remember is to keep information up-to-date – adding new content where relevant. For example, if your site has the capacity to host a blog or news section, do it! You might consider adding information contained in any newsletters you produce, updates on practice initiatives or coffee mornings. Added a new service? Tell your patients via a news story. Has your practice had a CQC inspection recently? Share your success. Have you welcomed a new member of staff to the team? Introduce them.
Having an online presence does open you up to the public and healthcare providers have seen some unfair – and sometimes abusive – comments directed at them. If your practice website is subjected to abusive or unfair comments the BMA has prepared some useful guidance that you should consult.
The power of text messaging
Sending patients an appointment reminder has been shown to effectively reduce do-not-attends – which are costing the NHS in the region of £1bn per annum. Text messaging allows practices to contact patients with ease and can be used to remind patients of upcoming appointments, inform them of ‘flu vaccinations, share test results and even ask for feedback following a visit to the practice as patients can respond by text with replies automatically forwarded to a specified email address.
However, in the age of GDPR, remember that just because you hold a patient’s mobile number doesn’t mean that they have given consent for you to use it – this service can only be used where you have a patient’s recorded consent – easily visible on their computer record. The Medical Protection Society provides some useful advice on this.
Where used correctly, social media can be a useful platform on which to communicate with your existing patients – providing practice updates – and it also expands your reach. However, these are social and reactive platforms and caution is needed.
Social media is providing exciting ways to engage with patients –closed PPG Facebook groups, closed weight management groups and diabetes groups, for example – which allow patients with similar conditions to interact with each other in a safe and monitored environment. Twitter is another tool that is providing opportunities for engagement.
Setting up your social media accounts is the easy bit, the difficult – and most important – part is content and connecting. What content should you be posting? Some of the best examples we have seen include important updates – such as links to your latest newsletter, changes to opening hours, service updates, etc. – as well as healthcare information – for example, sharing information on symptoms to look out for. The South Warwickshire GP Federation (@southwarwicksgp) and Sherbourne Medical Centre (@SherbourneGPs) are two good examples on Twitter.
You can also interact with your patients via social media – but ensure that you have the people-resources to monitor your account and respond quickly – and be sure to set boundaries; for example, ‘We are not able to answer medical or appointment-related questions on Twitter – but other queries welcome!’
There are some disadvantages to social media; it’s inevitable that you will, at some point, receive some negative feedback – we are all fallible. This is another reason to ensure that your social media accounts are well-monitored and that you have a robust policy in place to ensure they are managed responsibly.
Wessex LMCs suggest that general practices keep the following in mind:
• Have a social media policy and keep it under review.
• Make sure it cross-references with your complaints policy.
• Be careful about which social media platform(s) you choose – they need to be right for your practice and must be managed.
• Have a staff social media policy.
• Publish a code of conduct on your practice website.
• Don’t post anything that you aren’t happy to appear elsewhere and that you wouldn’t be prepared to say face-to-face.
If your practice is subject to online abuse…stay calm; you’re not the first and you won’t be the last to receive unfair/negative comments. The official line is to not react immediately – rather, identify the most appropriate course of action. Consider the following:
1. Assess how you can minimise the harm done
What is the cause or motivation of the comment? Who is it directed at? Will engaging with it fuel the fire? Do you need to report it to the social media platform or elsewhere? You should have a policy to help you navigate the situation.
2. Act quickly and go offline
If you choose to respond, according to the Wessex LMCs, time is of the essence – so, write your brief, measured response acknowledging you have seen the comment quickly. Avoid a detailed response and instead ask the complainant to contact you directly. In a balanced tone, let them know that you have noted their concern and that you look forward to resolving it.
If it’s not appropriate, don’t respond. If unsure contact your LMC for further advice.
The RCGP has developed The Social Media Highway Code, available here.
The BMA has published Using social media: practical guidance and ethical guidance for doctors and medical students (PDF)