Marketing: The Little Guy Breaks Out

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Building a national—or even international—reputation can be a challenge for small facilities trying to expand beyond their local markets. But it can be done.

Editor's note: This is the second of two articles on improving your healthcare organization's reputation. Last month's story focused on improving your local relationships. This month's article explores how to expand into broader markets.

Brand-name hospitals attract patients from all over the world, garnering widespread media attention for their high-profile cases and quietly treating the rich and famous. Many smaller hospitals may not have the name recognition of those larger organizations, but that doesn't mean they can't break out of their regional markets.

On the rural coast of Maine, about a four-hour drive from Boston, a 25-bed critical-access hospital has built a national and international reputation for its speech pathology services. Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast has eight speech pathologists on staff, making it one of the largest providers of that service in the state. And they treat patients from all over the world.

"When people hear about this, they say, ‘Holy mackerel, how do you do that?'" says Michael Towey, a voice specialist/speech language pathologist at Waldo's Voice & Swallowing Center.

The organization has built its program with technology, partnerships, outreach to international audiences, and a laserlike focus on a niche market. "What drives our service here is we focus on what we can be best at, what we really like to do, and what the economic drivers are—that triangle," Towey says.

In fact, says Jim Banahan, president of Banahan Communications, a healthcare marketing consultancy based in Phoenix, AZ, expanding your market isn't that difficult or expensive.

"It's inappropriate not to budget for secondary and tertiary marketing, even if it's $1,000 and you have a Web presence internationally," he says. Translating your Web site into several different languages, for example, costs about $4,000 and is a quick way to reach broad audiences.

Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles translated its site into several languages, including Spanish and Korean. Another inexpensive tactic: Link exchanges with other sites, such as foreign embassies.

Since taking those two small steps, the hospital's site gets hits from some 16 different countries. Admittedly, Los Angeles is already a destination spot for international travelers, as are New York, Miami, Houston, and Chicago. But, as Waldo County General Hospital proves, you don't have to be in a major market to attract medical tourists.

"Does it mean a large chunk of business? Probably not," says Banahan. "But yet it's that periphery that can make or break your financial year, your volume year. Especially with certain service lines—cardiovascular in particular."

For Waldo County General Hospital, building a national and international reputation was a little more involved. Among their tactics:

Technology: The hospital has made a "substantial investment" in equipment and training. It provides fiber optic, endoscopic imaging that allows specialists to look at patients' vocal folds, for example. The hospital also uses technology that allows staff to treat patients remotely, which it uses to treat voice disorders for telemarketers and other professionals across the country.

Partnerships: The hospital formed a partnership with an agency that works with daycares and preschools in several different communities. It partnered to get a grant and now consults with schools to provide language and literacy consulting and teacher training.

Training: Specialists travel frequently to share their expertise with others in the field. Towey calls it "an investment in intellectual capital." It also helps build relationships—and referral business. "We now can connect with people anywhere in the world and provide that service."

Reputation: "I have relationships now with people as a result of the national work we've done in different parts of the country," Towey says. "We can get on the phone and get in touch with someone—they take our call. It creates greater access to the really cutting-edge and absolute most current technology and treatment approaches."

Hard work: The hospital's success didn't happen overnight. "We established our credibility and our credentials within our own community. From a marketing perspective . . . if anyone wants to compete with us, they're really going to have to hustle to get on the same level as us."

Gienna Shaw

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