The U.S. hearing aid industry is rapidly changing. As such, it is important to keep abreast of new hearing aid sale trends, legislation updates, and advances in hearing aid technology—and to be even more creative in our marketing techniques.
ENT physicians who dispense hearing aids are fortunate to have a built-in referral base from their medical practices with a constant stream of new patients presenting with hearing loss. I realized early in my career that less than five percent of the adult patients referred to see me for hearing loss or tinnitus problems needed medical or surgical treatment. The overwhelming majority of these patients simply needed a pair of well-fitted hearing aids. For over 20 years, I have subsequently dispensed hearing aids as an added service for my patients. I marketed the hearing aid practice successfully using all the tried-and-true techniques such as newspaper ads, direct mail pieces, open houses, “lunch and learns,” and TV spots. Because of this, hearing aid sales have now become a large percentage of my yearly practice revenue. The following major factors have necessitated that hearing aid providers re-think marketing efforts:
1. The rise of Big Box retailers and health insurance companies selling hearing aids, with subsequent significant loss of market share by independent hearing aid dispensers, audiologists, and ENTs;
2. the demise of newspaper readership and print ads direct to the consumer (Poynter, 2016 http://bit.ly/2ovA9jF); and
3. the rise of the internet and social media as powerful marketing tools.
CHALLENGES TO PHYSICIAN ACCESS
Audiologists and ENT physicians who dispense hearing aids have always known that physicians are a great source of referral for hearing aids. Since the accelerated decline of the local newspaper readership, I have personally seen a significant increase in TV/cable ads by local hearing aid providers. Many hearing aid providers are also resorting to direct mail pieces, which can be expensive. Marketing to physicians is now more important than ever as a cost-effective way for hearing aid providers to maintain market share in an increasingly competitive environment rather than focusing on expensive consumer direct ads.
Unfortunately, access to physicians has become more difficult. Physician practices have drastically changed since the HITECH act of 2009 was signed into law and electronic medical records (EMRs) were introduced to medical clinics. It is estimated that physicians spend approximately two hours per day completing patient charts using an EMR. As a result, primary care physicians are finding it increasingly difficult to find the time to meet with marketing representatives. In addition, most primary care providers today are employed by large groups, which can make physician access even more difficult (New York Times, 2014 http://nyti.ms/2ovvPkm).
Many hearing aid referral networks have developed detailed proprietary physician marketing programs to obtain physician referrals, with mixed results. As an ENT physician in private practice for over 24 years, I am continually inundated by an array of marketing representatives. However, as much as I would like to chat with them, I simply do not have the time to do that anymore.
TIPS FOR MARKETING TO PHYSICIANS
So how can you effectively market your hearing aid practice to physicians? Even if your practice already has a fine-tuned physician referral program, it helps to be equipped with these strategic tips.
1. Don't be a pest. Show up regularly at the office every four to six weeks but no more. (“Oh it's him/her again!”) Always be respectful of the medical provider's time.
2. Present yourself professionally. Be well-dressed and pleasant. Smile during interactions, and make sure your breath is fresh.
3. Many medical practices now restrict any type of marketing. A 2015 study reported that 53 percent of physician practices restricted pharmaceutical representatives from their offices (Fierce Pharma, 2015 http://bit.ly/2ovyvyr). In large medical practices, you will likely need to obtain an official visitor's pass to gain access to the medical providers.
4. Never arrive at an office empty-handed. A box of chocolates or cookies with your company logo or a stack of professionally produced brochures or business cards are appropriate. In the past, gifts of alcoholic beverages were acceptable, but now this practice is frowned upon. Whatever you decide to bring, try to bring the same type of item each time. In our practice, one representative is known as the “cookie guy” and another as “the Starbucks guy.” If you do this right, the front office staff may actually look forward to seeing you each time you walk through the door! (If you offer to pick up coffee, call ahead to get everyone's order.)
5. Think twice about pre-printed referral forms. Most physicians already deal with multiple referral forms, lab slips, and imaging requests, so you may not want to add to that clutter. Most physician referrals are now generally done directly through the EMR in a HIPPA-protected manner (usually via fax).
6. Don't forget the mid-level providers. There are approximately 850,000 physicians in the United States, as well as over 100,000 physician assistants and over 222,000 nurse practitioners (BLS, 2016 http://bit.ly/2ovvEG2; AANP 2016 http://bit.ly/2ovzJde). Mid-level providers are usually just as busy as the physicians, and their time may also be hard to come by.
7. Schedule a lunch. This is what I have resorted to in the past couple of years when I really do need to speak with an office representative. Make sure to eat your own lunch before (or after) the meeting so you can talk more to promote your practice. Don't offer to do a physician lunch more than once or twice a year for each practice to avoid being perceived as “pushy.” In larger practices, you may be buying sandwiches for 50-100 providers, so be sure to get an accurate head count from the office manager ahead of time and always bring a few extra.
8. Prepare an enticing presentation. Dazzle the physician with at least one new hi-tech hearing aid feature, pricing, or benefit, and provide a demonstration or dummy aids. Let the provider know about the hearing aid trial period in your state (if any), and if you are doing that, explain how his/her patients have little or no financial risk in trying a set. Also, drop a new and interesting fact about hearing loss.
9. Have you authored a book or journal article geared toward the general public on hearing loss or hearing aids? If so, offer to leave several copies in the practice's waiting room for patients to read.
10. Finally, don't forget the front office staff, nurses, and medical assistants. This is one of the most important and overlooked marketing techniques. Even if the medical provider “doesn't see reps,” the medical office staff do like seeing friendly and familiar faces once in a while, and may even be the best people to speak with. Inform them of the importance of hearing loss treatment and of any free hearing test you may offer, and give them your business cards to pass along to patients who may need your services. (I even give them a plastic desktop card holder with the business cards that cost only 74 cents each on eBay!)