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Up Front | Oct 2004

No Fun!

Why visiting the doctor is making it harder to attract patients.

How many people do you know who would say that visiting their doctor is something to which they look forward? Probably very few. More often, a person bemoans such an appointment as if it were some type of short-term prison sentence.

Perhaps it was recent back-to-back visits to both the doctor and the dentist that helped to remind me that medical appointments are, simply put, not a fun experience. When the best part of visiting a doctor's office is the departure, it makes sense why people avoid it.

Most of us involved in refractive surgery recognize that fear is the predominant barrier that keeps people from even exploring vision correction. Much of the focus of refractive marketing and patient communications has been to explain the LASIK procedure, the technology, and the expectations regarding outcomes and recovery. The time I spent in my respective doctors' waiting rooms, however, enlightened me to perhaps a more basic obstacle to undergoing LASIK, a phenomenon I'll term doctor avoidance. I began wondering if LASIK messages designed to help consumers overcome the fear of refractive surgery fail to address a more fundamental truth: people don't like visiting the doctor.

The implication to you, the LASIK provider, of the public's distaste for doctor visits is huge: you may be failing to attract a large pool of qualified candidates who equate a visit to a refractive surgeon with a visit to any other doctor's office where they get probed, pricked, and handled with not-so-friendly gloves. Although no front-end advertising can counter doctor avoidance, you can make your in-office experience so positive that it doesn't feel to patients like going to the doctor's office. What can you do to make your patients' experience feel as unlike a visit to the doctor as possible? This is one effort worth undertaking, and it will require you to temporarily remove the titles following your name lest you get defensive (“I'm a highly skilled professional, not an entertainer!”). You're simply considering new ways to energize your patients' experience in your office. The opportunity here for boosting your volume is great.

The good news is that there are many things that you can do to make your entire office experience more enjoyable. This effort shouldn't detract from the seriousness of the service you provide, but you must realize that you are serving the needs of people who have visited you by choice, because they want their vision fixed. Most of these patients are extremely fearful early on in the refractive surgery process, and the challenge is to help them overcome their fear, not only of having LASIK, but also of simply being in a doctor's office and the preconceived notions that carries. I offer three questions intended to help you focus time and energy toward improving your patients' experience in your office.

1. Entertain: What can we do to make it more fun for the patient to be in our practice?
Consider: Because you are in the business of asking people to pay a significant sum of money to improve their vision, it makes sense to make the entire experience—not just the post-LASIK outcome—worthwhile.

2. Engage: How can we better involve our patients in the process of deciding to undergo refractive surgery?
Consider: The decision-making process for LASIK candidates is not a one-way street. Both patient and provider need to be involved in what could be characterized as a dance. One partner may lead while the other follows, but they need to work together.

3. Excite: How do we help patients learn about us while we learn about them?
Consider: The best-known consumer brands exist because of a meaningful relationship with the customer that exceeds the basic elements of the product itself (think Starbucks, a brand that is about much more than a cup of coffee). The same kind of energy that you gain from a new friendship is what you should strive for with patients. Make it an opportunity for them to learn about your practice's “personality” as you are getting to know their wants as well as their fears.

The objective of the three Es I mentioned above is to create an experience so different from patients' expectations that they leave overjoyed, or at least pleasantly surprised. Most patients do have this “over the top” sensation at their first postoperative visit, but why limit that feeling to that one moment in time? Exceeding expectations should be your goal with each and every patient encounter—before, during, and after surgery. Having LASIK is a major changing point in the lives of most patients. They are going to remember the event for a long time, because they are going to enjoy its benefits for years to come.

It makes good business sense to put a lot of emphasis on improving the quality of interaction with patients at each point in the surgical process. The Chairman of SAS Airlines put it best when he said that, each day, his employees had 5 million encounters with their customers, spanning from reservations to check-in staff, to gate agents, to flight attendants, and those were 5 million opportunities each and every day to make an impression on customers.

Let's face it: the deck is stacked against the LASIK provider right from the beginning, because surgery involves (1) a doctor (as explained); (2) vision, the most sacred of the senses; and (3) touching the eye—an unsettling event for most spectacle-dependent people and a key reason why only 20% of the population has ever tried contact lenses.

The antidote is to make refractive surgery fun. Fun can be defined in all sorts of ways. It doesn't have to be silly and it shouldn't be disrespectful, but it can be used to lessen the gravitas associated with doctor visits and elective eye surgery. The lightening-up process has to involve the entire staff and needs to be driven from the top, down. More importantly, it involves thinking outside yourself and focusing on how to better serve the needs of the customer (your patient). The more you do this, the more you will separate your offering from that of other providers. If patients truly experience something different at your practice, they will be less inclined to shop around and more likely to tell their friends about you. Although the basic product can be replicated (meaning that there will always be others who can perform refractive surgery), the service you provide cannot. This is what it truly means to develop a competitive advantage as a LASIK provider.

One additional thought: employers who help their employees become skilled at better serving customers tend to enjoy their profession more. The data on employee job satisfaction seem to be strongly correlated with the extent to which one serves the needs of others. This might explain why “servant leadership” is becoming an increasingly popular business topic (see the Fish! series of books by John Christensen, Stephen Lundin, and Harry Paul [Hyperion Books, 2002]). Happier patients and happier employees—that is indeed a winning combination!

Shareef Mahdavi draws on 20 years of medical device marketing experience to help companies and providers become more effective and creative in their marketing and sales efforts. Mr. Mahdavi welcomes comments at (925) 425-9963 or shareef@sm2consulting.com.
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