Six Easy Steps to Creating a Successful Integrative Medicine Practice

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According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the use of dietary supplements in the United States is on the rise. Americans who used at least one dietary supplement, such as multivitamins and calcium, increased from 42 percent of adults to 53 percent between 1994 and 2006.1 With more than half the adult population now trying to bolster their health through taking supplements, the era of integrative medicine is unequivocally upon us.

Not surprisingly, integrative medicine services have begun to enter the mainstream. A recent Nutrition Business Journal report states that integrative medicine revenues now represent 2 percent of the $2.5T spent annually on national healthcare, and estimates a doubling in sales of integrative practitioner products and services from roughly $25B to nearly $50B from 1999–2010. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), 40 percent of the US population spent nearly $34B on out-of-pocket complementary and alternative therapies and products during 2007 alone. Driven by a combination of internal “clinician champions” (advocates of certain evidence-based integrative therapies) and patient demand (most notably from boomers who want a patient-centered, patient-empowered approach to the management of their disease and chronic conditions), the market for integrative care continues its ascent.

Many integrative medicine/oncology centers, while seeing moderate increases in clinic utilization, are still not economically viable as a standalone service line.

Since 1999, most major US medical institutions have established integrative medicine or integrative oncology centers within their facilities. Fast forward one decade, however, and many of these integrative medicine/oncology centers, while seeing moderate increases in clinic utilization, are still not economically viable as a standalone service line. Most centers rely on private donations, philanthropic support, and/or financial assistance from their institution to sustain their clinical operations and programs. Unfortunately, silos tall and wide remain within the major medical centers; there are simply not enough internal referrals from conventional doctors directing their patients to integrative centers. Moreover, consumer-marketing efforts often rely on the parent institution’s traditional marketing communications channels, with the integrative centers traditionally not the highest priority.

If your center is like most, you have an urgent need to reinvent your clinical business model and to develop specific strategies to achieve sustainable, long-term growth. This article explores the many challenges centers face and focuses on the key areas that can positively impact clinic utilization. Although the article concentrates on strategies for larger centers, many of these same challenges and concepts apply to private integrative practitioners who specialize in oncology, functional medicine, naturopathy, preventive medicine, and Ayurveda.

Six-Step Plan

1. Distinguish your brand.

Your brand tells healthcare consumers who you are and what to expect. Yet most integrative medicine/oncology centers within larger medical institutions are not adequately distinguished from their “parent” and are often branded using generic, outdated terminology (eg, “The Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) Center of Institution Name”). While these centers typically occupy physical space within the institution itself, they rarely are fully integrated into the parent organization’s operation at the clinical level.

The integrity and prestige of being connected to a major hospital or cancer center is valuable and should be readily communicated to the consumer. While it’s important to leverage quality brand association, clearly distinguishing the value proposition of your center is imperative. The term CAM reads as passé and inaccurate; your center does not offer alternative medicine in lieu of proven conventional care, and it should not be part of your name. Create or re-establish a modern brand identity that clearly defines the unique ethos of your center. Use a name that incorporates today’s contemporary terms for integrative care, and possibly include the name of a major benefactor if you have one.

2. Get your message to consumers.

Many of your integrative services are not covered by payers (eg, acupuncture, dietician consults—except for heart or diabetes patients), and many health consumers are hard-pressed to pay for healthcare services out-of-pocket. This is especially true as insurance costs and co-pays continue to rise in a difficult economy. Healthcare consumers need to be educated and convinced about the benefits of medical services not covered by most payers. This process starts with an internal audit of your branded collateral and consumer messaging tools. Take a close look at how your center communicates to prospective new patients across all channels.

Start by creating clear, concise copy that explains how your integrative center comple¬ments conventional treatments, examinations, and diagnostics. Clearly define and distinguish between “alternative” and evidence-based integrative modalities and explain your center’s commitment to the clinical and scientific merit for each intervention/ service offered. Organize your menu of services by category, and include a history of each intervention and a description of the known science base, using multiple citations where available. Include insurance coverage information that addresses the types of services that are covered and those that are not, as well as whom a patient should talk with in regard to their specific coverage.

3. Build internal referrals.

Many of the conventional physicians within your institution don’t refer to your center only because they are not fully aware of the bevy of services offered and how select interventions might help their patients’ outcomes. You need to educate them, and one of the best ways to do so is with an introductory brochure. Use your brochure to frame a compelling argument for why your center would be a logical—and beneficial—partner to improve outcomes for patients’ quality of life. Explain each intervention and its history; describe the exponential growth in the United States for many of the services your center provides. Clearly define in adequate detail the available science behind each intervention. Draw the line between each intervention and how it relates to symptom relief for both acute and chronic disease and conditions, such as stress, anxiety, and fatigue. The goal of this communication piece is to educate and inform through useful, informative content—not to be used as a “hard sell” sales piece. Finally, be upfront about insurance coverage—referring physicians need to be aware of these realities and the financial stress that these costs can put upon their patients.

4. Cultivate relationships with the allopathic community at large.

To increase referrals from the conventional medical community, you need an external messaging strategy targeted specifically to this segment. This will require a significant investment in time but will pay off in long-term dividends. You are essentially looking to cultivate relationships with outside practitioner groups—including oncologists, primary care physicians, and internists—many of whom will initially be guarded, given that the much larger conventional part of your institution is often viewed as direct competition to independent practices. A certain amount of careful disarming is required when approaching local, conventional practices. In many cases, it will be harder to convince outside providers to refer patients to your center than it is to convince your internal colleagues. The local conventional medical community, by and large, will not be any more aware of evidence-based integrative medicine modalities than those colleagues within your hospital. Again, education is paramount, and this can most effectively be achieved through storytelling around factual information, not the “hard sell.”

Adopt a partnering approach, and highlight therapies that can complement a patient’s care and improve outcomes in several core areas. For example, acupuncture, yoga, mind-body techniques, and anti-inflammatory natural products may enable the patient to wean off stronger pain management medications. Other areas that complement an allopathic approach are nutrition and immunity, with services such as dietician consults, supplementation recommendations, and prescriptive exercise. Stress and anxiety reduction are also essential for improved outcomes; protocols include acupuncture, yoga, mind-body techniques, and psycho-oncology.

Although the complementary services your center offers have been clinically proven to help reduce the symptoms of many different diseases and conditions, most physicians don’t give much thought to the good that these interventions might bring their patients. Your efforts to educate them can change that.

5. Go “live” with your message.

Strong collateral materials with the right messaging are very important for influencing existing and prospective patients about your center’s products and services. The same applies for appealing to potential (and existing) referring practitioners—both within and outside your institution. However, nothing is more compelling than getting prospective and existing patients and practitioners to experience “live” content delivered by your center’s leading voices. In marketing lingo, this type of content is known as “experiential marketing” and has traditionally been delivered by integrative medicine practitioners via community outreach, most often through public speaking (eg, lectures, panel discussions) and presentations. Live engagement gives you an opportunity to educate consumers and practitioners about the clinical indications for specific integrative therapies, the science behind them, and the stories surrounding your patients’ terrific outcomes. Try to make them a key facet of your strategic plan.

Get your center’s most prominent providers involved and focused on one specific intervention at a time. Consider live demonstrations (and audience participation) for interventions such as massage, acupuncture, and yoga. Regardless of whether your audience is composed of health consumers, administrators, MDs, PhDs, or nurses, always discuss the available science base behind the intervention. Go into the scientific aspect even more deeply for an audience of medical professionals.

Consider partnering with a local health-directed radio or TV show, or suitable print outlet, to help drive health consumers to your live events. There may be an opportunity for your center to sponsor a program or print piece, or for you to “buy media” (purchase time or space) for a reduced rate. If you have in-house media capabilities, record the presentations and post them to your website and to social video channels such as YouTube and Vimeo.

6. Craft influential digital content.

Health consumers are hungry for information. Many want to learn as much as they can about their disease or condition and what they can do to address the root, systemic causes and/or symptoms. While there are several trusted websites for consumers to get general medical information (eg, cancer.gov, webmd.com, mayoclinic.com), there are not as many resources available for evidence-based integrative interventions and natural products (eg, nutraceuticals, botanicals) and their potential contraindications. This is your chance to be a “publisher”—to be the media you would like to see. It’s your opportunity to influence prospective integrative medicine health consumers with meaningful, compelling, valuable content. Marketing professionals refer to this as content marketing.

Content marketing is the art and science of creating useful, relevant content and delivering that content in a consistent manner to current patients, prospective consumers, and medical professionals to educate them about your integrative services and products. Content marketing is not direct selling or pitching, but a powerful mode of influencing and educating through the dissemination of timely information. Done right, the creation and delivery of quality, valuable content engenders trust around your brand (eg, center, clinic). Content marketing establishes thought leadership and clearly distinguishes your brand from others.

A properly designed and executed content marketing strategy will help you build trust with consumers, because you are providing them with valuable content. When they are ready to schedule integrative medical services—as a preventative wellness measure or to address an existing health condition—they will think of your center because they trust your brand.

Key Marketing Steps to Communicate Your Brand

  • Choose a unique, contemporary name and develop a solid brand identity—an eye-catching logo, tagline, and collateral set.
  • Create a physical brochure that is relatively inexpensive to print, includes photos of providers, therapies, their history and the evidence base. Much of this content can be repurposed for your website and social media efforts.
  • Build partnerships with the external medical community through database development, direct mail, telephone outreach and face-to-face meetings.
  • Develop compelling speaking engagements—lectures, panel discussions, and presentations—as an effective tool for community outreach and to build clinic utilization.
  • Execute a well-designed and informative content marketing strategy that incorporates your website/blog, white papers, e-books, video and audio podcasts, print media, custom magazines, and a strong social media presence.

Strategy first

The array of clinic development and media approaches can be dizzying, but don’t become paralyzed by a glut of choices. The most practical place to start is with an integrative medicine services audit that will review your center and define clear next steps for your new or evolving brand. Consumer behavior shows that integrative services are wanted and in demand, but the majority of providers aren’t differentiating themselves enough in the market to make a quality, sustainable impact.

No matter where you begin, this comprehensive plan shows that it is possible to move your integrative medicine center or practice into a position of sustainable, long-term profitability, and to satisfy your patients for years to come.

This article is adapted from the FON Therapeutics white paper, "How to Increase Clinic Utilization of Integrative Services in 60 Days," available by clicking here.

About the Author

Glenn Sabin is a veteran marketing and business development executive who for over 2 decades led an award-winning media and content marketing firm in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Click here to learn about Glenn’s passion for evidenced-based integrative medicine and his forthcoming book N-of-1: How One Man’s Triumph Over Terminal Cancer is Changing the Medical Establishment.

References

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dietary Supplement Use Among U.S. Adults Has Increased Since NHANES III (1988–1994). NCHS Data Brief. 2011:61. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db61.htm. Published April 13, 2011. Accessed July 12, 2001.

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