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Sins of Omission: How an incomplete communications plan can hurt you

11.05.2007 / Posted in Articles, Communications

Leslie Farnsworth
President and CEO

Featured in the November 5, 2007, issue of RT Image.

The imaging industry is a challenging communications environment. All good communicators develop their strategies by first analyzing their audiences and stakeholders: the people they need to reach. And in imaging, the number of stakeholders is large and growing.

Yes, there are the stakeholders-who-always-were: patients, referring physicians and staff. But now, there are also payers (private and government) and even radiology benefit managers (RBMs); and imaging providers need to talk to all of them.

Which ones are you leaving out in your current communications plan?

Patients

Imaging facilities – outside a hospital environment – rarely forget to communicate with patients. Many imaging facilities do a fine job of telling patients what to expect from their visits through phone calls before their appointments and with handouts before and after their procedures. Some even advertise their services directly to patients.

Hospital radiology departments do a much spottier job of communicating with patients, mainly because the patient flow is often so vastly different than what freestanding facilities experience.

Often, hospital imaging departments rely on at-hand referring physicians to communicate with patients about what to expect during procedures, and then on techs and other department staff to provide verbal support and explanations as the situation allows. /

As long as patients feel they are getting the information they need – and imaging providers should ask them about this in a systematic, analytic fashion – this may be fine.

Communicating with patients is critical because it streamlines the procedure process, saving valuable time. It also helps ensure that patients have positive experiences – which is essential if imaging providers don’t want them to complain to their referring physicians or payers.

However, patients are rarely the actual “client” in the current healthcare environment, as hard as that sometimes is for healthcare practitioners and administrators to admit. (You went into healthcare to help people, right?)

Referring Physicians

A radiology provider’s immediate clients are really the physicians who send patients for exams. And, in many situations, communicating with referring physicians or departments isn’t done as well as it could be done.

If radiology isn’t communicating well with referring physicians, it can expect mangled workflow processes that waste time and money and increase interdepartmental (and interphysician) frustration and patient dissatisfaction. Efficiencies are only ever achieved if people work together; and how can people work together if they don’t continually communicate?

Communicating with referring physicians goes beyond hospital information systems, radiology information systems and PACS. These systems don’t spread the word about the types of services a specific facility or department can provide, and they don’t help referring physicians determine how best to order an exam for optimum patient care and diagnostic results.

They don’t review important changes that have improved patient and referring-physician service levels. They don’t brainstorm with departments about how they can best work together for the good of the patient and the hospital at large, and so on.

Communicating with physicians and other hospital departments is tricky. Unlike patients, they aren’t a captive audience with a prescheduled appointment. But, they are willing to talk to people if they feel that their patients or their practices will benefit as a result.

Imaging facilities often have salespeople who visit referring physician practices to give them face time and answer questions – all aimed toward increasing the physicians’ and front-office staff’s comfort with referring patients. It’s great that facilities have taken the step to hire salespeople for these business-critical activities, but it’s amazing how few of them routinely sit down and systematically interview these “feet on the street” about what they are hearing and seeing.

FrogDog Communications recently worked in a marketing consulting capacity with a nationwide imaging facility chain. As part of the research phase of the project, the FrogDog staff interviewed a sampling of the company’s salespeople. In every case, this was the first time the company – not each salesperson’s boss, but leadership of the company – had systematically asked its salespeople for feedback.

In neglecting to do so previously, the company had missed out on valuable information about the objections salespeople heard from referring physician offices. Each salesperson had standard marketing materials that emphasized what the company thought was important.

By knowing what referring physician offices cared about, the company could better address their concerns – giving the salespeople the right tools for success.

This same process works for hospital radiology departments. Hospital departments should not shy away from asking their staff the hard questions. When a radiology department truly knows the needs and concerns of its referring departments, it can better address them – ensuring better service within the hospital and for their patients.

Staff

An organization’s staff members are its ambassadors. Imaging providers are often quite good at educating staff on policies and procedures, and many are excellent at supporting continuing education for clinical staff to achieve and maintain optimum certification and accreditation.

Where many organizations fall short is in communicating with staff about goals, objectives, values and differentiators. Staff members continually interact with other stakeholders, and if they don’t fully understand and buy into an organization’s business objectives, differentiators and key messages, then staff members can’t share them with the people who matter most.

Imaging providers should empower their staffs to serve as true and strong advocates. They can’t know – and can’t embody – what you don’t tell them.

Payers and Radiology Benefit Managers

The imaging industry has little love for payers and RBMs. It also has little communication. Sure, administrators conscientiously submit the necessary paperwork and comply with the necessary regulations. But, beyond that? Silence.

This is a serious shame, because these two audiences are, in effect, the real clients in this mix, if we define “client” as “the one with the purse strings.”

Communicating with payers and RBMs holds real value. Imaging providers should proactively tell these stakeholders about quality-of-care initiatives that make them stand out. If they go above and beyond in accreditation and equipment maintenance, they should make absolutely sure that payers and RBMs know it. If internal research shows increasingly positive patient outcomes, payers and RBMs should hear about it – especially in today’s age of pay-for-performance buzz.

Reaching out to payers and RBMs with positive news about quality helps imaging providers when it comes to reimbursement and contracting, but that’s not all. Reaching out also helps imaging providers gain influence over the policies and rules that payers and RBMs continually develop.

Providers that reach out to these audiences and offer their hands-on experience will help ensure that their voices are heard and understood. After all, payers and RBMs are gathering the information upon which they make their decisions from somewhere – why not from the people on the front lines, providing the services?

Payers and RBMs are truly hungry for market and outcomes data. Reaching out and offering expertise can only help imaging providers in today’s increasingly complex and straitened regulatory and reimbursement environment.

And even better, constant contact with these influential industry payers will help providers stay ahead of the curve in planning practice changes around the inevitable evolution of payer and RBM expectations.

Communications Pays Dividends

In an industry with so many stakeholders, imaging providers do themselves a great disservice by neglecting to communicate effectively with all of them.

The time it takes for the administrative team to sit down, analyze its audiences and stakeholders, and define the messages and tactics to effectively reach each one is well-spent time that will pay dividends in improved workflow, satisfaction and bottom lines.

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