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Private Practice Marketing
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Private Practice Marketing

By Lynne Spevack, CSW, Private Practice,
Midwood, Brooklyn and Financial District

While the Private Practitioners Group meetings focus on many topics of interest to private practitioners, the topic that has elicited the most enthusiasm has been marketing. For that reason, the group has revisited the topic of marketing every few months. And every time we do, I’ve learned something more. I’d like to share with you some of what I’ve learned.

Marketing needn’t be a self-serving, pushy and manipulative enterprise, like the methods of the proverbial used car salesman. Professional marketing must be an ethical endeavor that is congruent with, and may even serve the larger purposes of our profession and society. In marketing a profession such as ours, we are obliged to attend first to the needs and interests of our clients, and to ensure that when we do address our own needs that it is not at our clients’ expense. A business that is not also a profession, such as is the managed care industry, has no such obligation, and need only attend to the bottom line and its investors’ profits. But in our quest to distinguish ourselves from non-professional businesses we have gone to the other extreme, avoiding self-promotion as if it, in and of itself, would be detrimental to our clients. In truth, we must take care of ourselves, and developing ways of taking care of our own needs without hurting others can be a good model for our clients

At its best, the marketing methods that we professionals use to promote our individual practices can also serve a public health function, educating the public about mental health issues and treatment options and de-stigmatizing their problems and the use of treatment. A private practitioner who gives a talk to a PTA about methods of preventing teen drinking and drug abuse is at once providing a valuable public service as well as developing a reputation for themselves in that community as someone who can help families with issues such as parent guidance and teen substance abuse. But not every marketing endeavor needs to serve this other, larger altruistic purpose. Marketing – getting the word out about one’s own practice in ways that don’t hurt or manipulate the public – is a fine thing to do.

Marketing needn’t be a crass and obnoxious enterprise. When I first confronted the need to market my own practice I was panicked, fearing that I didn’t know how to “do sales.” After researching the subject (reading, attending seminars and talking with colleagues about marketing), I began to recognize that I had many more marketing opportunities at hand than I would ever need or have time to implement! Learning this has allowed me to be more selective about engaging only in marketing endeavors that suit my style and speak to my interests. A private practitioner who feels anxious at the prospect of public speaking needn’t give talks, but instead might, for example, write an article for the PTA newsletter on the very same topic of preventing teen drinking and drugging.

Marketing needn’t be “cut-throat” and competitive. As I wrote this article, I received a call from a referral source seeking a specialist to treat an executive’s wife for her phobia about flying. My thoughts turned instantly to the various interventions I could use with this client. Initially I explained to him that I believe that my experience in treating anxiety disorders qualified me to treat this problem myself, but he indicated that he wanted a “specialist” for this high profile case. Rather than stubbornly sticking to my guns that I could treat this client and alienating the caller, I engendered his goodwill by graciously doing some legwork for him. He was very grateful that I was so accommodating about making some effort to locate a colleague with this specialty. I also engendered the goodwill of the colleague who received this referral. By not focusing narrowly on my interest in this one referral that was so close to being “in the hand,” I instead focused more broadly on cultivating my relationship with these two colleagues “in the bush” who might think of referring to me in the future.

Competition among colleagues carries the implication that there is a small and limited resource that we are all competing for. I don’t believe this is so. Many people aren’t getting the help they need for their problems, sometimes because their problems go undiagnosed, or because of a misguided belief that they should be able to handle it on their own, or because stigma makes them feel uncomfortable about getting help. Many people instead seek out the help of others, including some who are frankly charlatans. Often people choose to go to others like “coaches” who frame their services as growth oriented rather than problem or illness focused. There is a vast, untapped population of people who could benefit from our services, but who, for one reason or another, go elsewhere, or suffer in silence.

In the midst of the recent news about GHI reducing its already paltry fees and Oxford auditing case records and demanding reimbursements of fees already paid, marketing can be an attractive alternative to participating in managed care panels. Most managed care providers are reluctant at best, accepting the low pay, the demands of administrative burdens and intrusion into the privacy of the therapeutic encounter only in order to obtain referrals. But it’s important to remember that there are other – perhaps less painful – ways of generating referrals. For myself, I’d rather invest my time and energy in developing my skill and comfort with sales than investing it in completing treatment plan review forms or appealing a clerk’s denial of continued treatment. And I believe that generating referrals through marketing rather than through managed care ultimately leads to greater career satisfaction, since we feel more in control of our income and less at the mercy of the managed care and insurance industry system.

Like the Wizard of Oz, I’ll reveal myself to you: in writing this article, I’m marketing myself to you! Volunteering in professional and other organizations – to write articles, serve on committees, etc.—is a time-honored marketing method. I’ve introduced myself to some of you and reminded others who know me of my practice, and given all of you a sense of who I am and how I work. The very best marketing methods combine promoting one’s practice with doing what one would want to do anyway. In this way, nothing is lost; even if that particular endeavor doesn’t yield a single referral, I’ve still enjoyed the opportunity to write an article about marketing, to craft and hone my thoughts on the subject, to see my name and photo in print, and to discuss an issue I am passionate about with my colleagues.

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