Winning hearts for your hospital by sharing yours


The year was 1966. My buddy was facing surgery on both legs. He was 9 and suffered from mild cerebral palsy. The surgeon would cut into both legs and extend both heel cords, a procedure that would strengthen his legs and offer more flexibility.

Now 59, my friend’s legs still carry the zipper-like scars from the surgery, now faded from the passage of time. But the memory of it all is still fresh.

“I was scared as hell,” my friend said.

But thanks to three people – a blue-collar surgeon, a blue-eyed nurse and a courageous anesthesiologist, my buddy smiles at the recollection.

The surgeon was the kind of man you’d want on your team in the OR, personable, positive, and confident in his ability. Keep in mind, he was practicing the art of medicine in a blue-collar community hospital. The patients, for the most part, yanked their living from the steel mill and coal mines in the area, or they were the wives and children of those men. The surgeon was beloved, because he took interest in their lives, wanted to know, really know, the families he served.

My friend remembered the anesthesiologist because he told his own story, recounting his family’s exodus from Castro’s Communist Cuba. In these days with the memory of the Missile Crisis still vivid, his courage, kindness and warmth shimmered. And because he was so grateful to be in a free America, he loved his patients, and took pains to make sure every one of them was at ease – even little boys.

And then there was the nurse. These were the days of Tuesday Weld, my buddy’s first celebrity crush. The nurse’s eyes were blue; her hair was blonde – like Tuesday’s.

Once my friend woke up in recovery, the nurse was the first face he saw.

“Did you know I held your hand through the whole thing?” she asked with a smile.

The kid was smitten. And Tuesday Weld was off the throne, replaced by a kind nurse in surgical scrubs.

So, no doubt you’re wondering what the Sam Hill this has to do with hospital marketing.

It’s a simple as this: The surgeon, anesthesiologist and nurse won a little boy’s heart by sharing theirs. And by extension, they captured a family’s heart for the hospital. And they did it using a big dose of something that should be in boundless supply: Genuine kindness. Genuine caring that stretches well beyond the art and science of medicine.

Keep in mind, too, that every hospital employee is an ambassador for your community hospital, not just the ones with the letters M.D., or RN, or CEO. It can be the volunteer at the front desk with an ever-present smile, an orderly who greets every patient he pushes in a wheelchair with a kind word, or the cafeteria worker with a ready smile. Every one can win hearts for your hospital.

Training is important to be sure. But kindness and compassion must be in big supply for every member of your team, from custodian to CEO.

My friend’s surgery was a success and he was able to live a life he never could have imagined, in part because of the surgery, the surgeon, the anesthesiologist and the nurse.

And the hospital was the “family hospital” for generations.

Now keep in mind, not every medical outcome was joyful for the family. Both my friend’s father and grandfather were pronounced dead in the cardiac care unit. When you see a doctor’s tears at sharing the news about a longtime patient, the clinician is showing his heart, and it eases the pain of loss, if only a bit.

The bottom line: Your hospital can win patients’ hearts for generations, simply by showing its own heart.

Catching Babies for a Living

A mother holing her sons feet

In 23 years as a physician, Dr. Becky Graham, O.B., has practiced in every setting – hospitalist, urban private practice and health care in rural settings. She’s endured the heartbreak of health system cuts and experienced the excitement of seeing generations of families come to her for care.

Those experiences have honed a fine sense of how to make a practice flourish and some keys to success that transcend strong marketing campaigns. Don’t misunderstand. Marketing is critical, but it’s only one spoke in the wheel of a strong, financially solvent practice.

Some of those spokes are deeply-rooted, timeless attributes, like putting patients first. That’s always been the cornerstone of Graham’s years in medicine. But there are other factors that physicians weighing private practice must consider. When joining a group practice, make sure the group is highly-respected and financially sound. That’s good sense from a marketing perspective.

“From a marketing point of view, nothing is as good as joining a practice with reputable physicians that will funnel you patients and where there are plenty of primary care physicians that will funnel you patients. If you have to depend entirely on marketing, I don’t know if there is a marketing practice that can overcome that.”

  • While practicing medicine in rural Kansas, Graham’s practice got a big bounce from a billboard, as well as social media. But a billboard in a highly-competitive market may not be worth the higher cost. Graham found success in rural Parsons and Fort Scott, Kan.

“All of it is word of mouth,” Graham said. “When I practiced in rural Kansas, I had a billboard and I got a lot of patients from the billboard.”

“In larger markets, outdoor can be expensive but was more affordable in rural areas. In Parsons, I couldn’t go anywhere without people knowing me, whether they’d been in my practice or not. “(They’d say,) ’Oh, you’re the lady on the billboard. You catch babies for a living.’ It was very effective.”

  • Look for free opportunities to market your practice. For small-town newspapers, especially in rural areas, a new physician in town is big news. And the space you’ll get from a story and photo is comparable to a print display ad – all without costing a dime. Graham also had success via social media, particularly on Facebook.
  • Think generationally. Health care is similar to banking in that if possible, children are likely to go to the same physician or hospital as their parents and grandparents – if the physician stays long enough. Or sometimes, the situation is reversed. If a daughter or son like a physician, there’s a real possibility parents and grandparents will come to the practice as well. “It always went one way or the other,” Graham said. “Either the grandma would come and if she liked me then her daughter would come. If she liked me her daughter would come. Or, they would send the teenager in, and if the teen liked me the Mom would come. And if the Mom liked me, then Grandma would come. Yes, I had a lot of families.”
  • Community visibility counts. Graham also attracted patients by virtue of her faith. As a church worship leader and being active in the Cursillo movement, the community came to know Graham beyond the office. Other civic activities – Rotary, Kiwanis, or volunteer efforts – can also make a difference. By her visibility in various church roles, Graham became “home folks” to the people in the community, a factor that can drive patient loyalty. “I had a lot of patients that came because they knew my faith,” Graham said. I think that’s true in a lot of places. They see a doctor in church, then they know who they are as a person.”
  • Beyond Facebook: Facebook pages and blogs can be effective, but many times, physicians are swamped with increased paperwork to maintain a blog. There are other technology tools that can boost a practice, like ZocDoc, which provides patients with periodic reminders of upcoming appointments. Graham saw a reduction in the number of no-shows in her practice.
  • Consider culture: In rural communities and in some immigrant communities, there is a closely-held belief that women should only be seen by female doctors. Graham recalled a Libyan patient who spread word among that community about her practice, attracting more patients. “A lot of times, ethnic or cultural factors would determine who came into my practice.”

And last a reminder: Don’t go it alone: Find good partners with good reputations and solid finances. Shrinking Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements – consider $17 for a wellness visit in rural Kansas – and (depending on the state) rising malpractice premiums – can make the cost of a solo practice, quite challenging.


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