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June 2012
Volume 33, Issue 6

Patient Communications in the Digital Age

Diana P. Friedman, MA, MBA

Before the Internet, in order to communicate to existing and prospective patients, dental practices leveraged one-way channels like advertising, direct mail, and printed collateral. Engaging the concept of a more productive two-way communication that customizes messages to patient-specific needs was not really an option then.

With the advent of communication channels such as Pinterest, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, e-mail, mobile messaging, blogging, video, podcasts, and more, all that has changed. This new digital era has created an informed patient who now expects 24-7 access to information and two-way correspondence. Thus, practices need to adapt their patient communications to the realities of these new opportunities and expectations, both in terms of the channels leveraged and the degree of individualization of the messaging.

Different digital and social media channels are suited for specific purposes. For instance, blogs provide a broader canvas for patient communications and, over time, can build the patient relationship by providing a medium for practices to promote new services, share news and updates, express gratitude towards patients, and stay in constant communication without being pushy. Micro blogging with services like Twitter allows sound-bite messaging to be delivered in real-time, giving practices a level of flexibility and speed. These channels are better suited to maintaining contact with patients, while Facebook and other social interaction channels are optimal for allowing patients to share their experiences and provide an excellent patient referral platform.

The main advantage of social media and other digital channels is the ability to send ongoing communications to patients—in real-time—with minimal cost and effort. An effective integrated digital platform drives practice growth and profitability by generating higher response rates, more loyal and engaged patients and, most importantly, increased production and collections.

Analyzing the Data

There is no question that social media is a powerful communication tool that patients interact with regularly and often. Social networking sites give patients an easy way to research and compare practices and service offerings more thoroughly, by assessing customer reviews and recommendations before picking up the phone or e-mailing a practice. Ultimately, social networking offers an effective way to build patient trust and long-term loyalty.

Just a few years ago, it was difficult to analyze the effect social media had on patient retention and acquisition or production growth. Today new technologies are available that automatically collect, analyze, and share detailed data to help better direct marketing investments, while optimizing practice-to-patient engagement.

Integrated communication platforms are sophisticated enough to be able to track specific incoming practice calls to different social media channels and quantify the impact on practice production. For instance, a product like First Call™ from Sesame Communications deploys different numbers on each online communication channel, then tracks all calls to the practice and records them. Callers self-identify themselves as new or existing patients. The dentist and administrative team can track each call to their schedule, and if a patient did not appoint, listen to the recording, and learn from that call how to better convert future callers.

The data clearly demonstrates that, in the Internet age, social media offers the most economical and effective channel for patient acquisition and retention. A 2010 national study by Sesame Communications revealed that members with three active social media services generated, on average, 56 calls per month, with 17 callers self-identified as new patients. Most significantly, compared to a traditional marketing cost of $275 per new patient acquisition, the study found the average cost for a new patient acquisition leveraging social media is only $49.75—82% lower.

Opportunity Lost?

The more practices incorporate social media into their patient communication strategies and marketing plans, the more they will benefit from increased patient engagement, recommendations, and referrals. Failing to integrate social media channels into the communication mix would be a missed opportunity for any practice.

Today, practices need to adopt a complete, well-branded, and integrated patient communication platform that effectively leverages digital marketing and patient engagement tools. Blending them together and using them intelligently, over time, creates a cumulative effect of brand awareness, loyalty, acquisition, and retention.

Business is all about building relationships. Social media and patient communications and engagement tools allow practices to extend relationships beyond the chair.

About the Author

Diana P. Friedman, MA, MBA
President and Chief Executive Officer
Sesame Communications
Seattle, Washington

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