Rural Health System Maximizes Profits Through Better Physician Onboarding; Can You Cut Your New Docs’ Time to Profit by 78%?

March 12, 2015

By Lisa D. Ellis

Geisinger_HealthSystem_Oct2013logoRelationships are the focus of attention at Geisinger Health System—and not just with patients, but also with its practitioners and specialists. In fact, aligning with providers, as well as with all of the internal service lines, is a key part of the organization’s strategy, enabling everyone to work collaboratively within the system to improve efficiency and increase their bottom line.

Reaching Across a Large Footprint

Serving the central and northeast regions of Pennsylvania, Geisinger Health System is one of the largest rural health systems in the nation, operating nine hospitals, along with a 1,200 member multi-specialty group practice, two research centers, and a 467,000-member health plan.

With a footprint of several hundred miles spread out over 44 counties, it’s essential to find ways to bridge mileage and regional distances, explains Sean Duffy, the system’s Director of Physician Relations.

While some hospitals communicate with providers themselves, Geisinger decided to try a different approach, hiring Duffy 12 years ago as its first physician relations representative, to serve as a ‘neutral’ go-between with providers and the hospital administration. This position, which falls under the corporate communications heading, was so well-received it eventually grew into his current director role, which now involves overseeing a team of physician liaisons strategically located throughout the service area.

The physician liaisons communicate with the systems’ doctors “to connect the dots for enhanced relationships.” Duffy points out that this connection ultimately translates into increased revenue growth for the organization, which is essential for its overall financial health and sustainability. He also stresses that the physician liaisons work with the support of the internal lines, such as service line marketing, strategy and business development, to back their efforts and help them be most successful on the front end.

Welcome Aboard, Doctor

One of the most important ways the physician liaisons improve the organization’s bottom line is by streamlining the on boarding process for new providers, helping them start turning a profit as early as possible in the process.

According to Duffy, in 2009 a new physician or specialty group took 18 months on average to become self-sufficient. Part of the problem was the time it took to successfully market the doctors in their target communities once they became affiliated with Geisinger Health System.

To improve on these metrics, Duffy’s team collaborated with other departments to work with the providers much earlier, reaching out to coordinate with them and begin promoting them from the moment they signed on with Geisinger. The premise was that such early involvement would not only improve revenues but also make the physicians settle in better, and therefore reduce dreaded (and profit sapping) physician turnover.

“Now, we start [marketing] 60 to 90 days before they get to Geisinger. They could be at other side of the country and we have physician liaison team out talking about those providers,” selling their expertise, Duffy says.

Early Onboarding Efforts Produce Quantifiable Results

Such efforts to ramp up provider promotion seems to be making a significant difference. Within two years’ time, and with critical support from the C-Suite, the physician liaison team was able to reduce the period of breaking even on new providers from 18 months down to six months. Now, several years later, this has decreased even further, with most newly on boarded physicians paying for themselves at four months, Duffy says.

“As a result [of these improvements], last year’s cost saving was just over $6 million,” he points out. “This means we went from losing millions to gaining millions just by putting our heads together in the organization.”

To further improve efficiency in this large organization and continue the gains the tighter on boarding process brings, the physician liaisons also make it a point to understand the different priorities and branding for each of the affiliated hospitals and their target audience, since often marketing is not a one-size fits all proposition. That’s where each physician liaison’s expertise comes into play, translating the data that speaks to the realties of the marketplace and using it to position Geisinger Health System, and its providers, in the most effective and appropriate way.

Providing a Real-World View of the Marketplace

“The biggest value the physician relations team brings is being there in real time and understanding what is going on in the market in terms of our competitors,” Duffy says. This ‘insider’ information allows Geisinger Health System to make better decisions and take advantage of opportunities to increase market share.

The physician liaisons also take a proactive role in spotlighting new doctors, taking them out on the road to meet with potential referral sources face-to-face. This personal connection seems to really help drive business. For instance, he says, the Chairman of Cardiology recently met with a targeted physician group, and that same day the system got three patient referrals from that same group.

Of course with so much ground that the physician liaisons must cover and differing demands on their time, he admits it’s been challenging to find a consistent way to share the information, data, and lessons learned across all of the regions and be able to make this information truly meaningful for the organization.

Sharing Data across County Lines and Hospital Service Areas

“We were looking for solutions in terms of documenting our activities and being willing to report out on them,” Duffy says. He was also seeking a consistent way to share the reports broadly within the entire system.

In addition, he needed to find a way to capture the on boarding process and be able to replicate it in different markets, without having to start from scratch each time. Investing in a business intelligence application was the answer to bring it all together in a way to make real sense of the information.

“The CRM system we selected—Marketware—has an on boarding tool that creates a warehouse of details around on boarding new providers,” he says.

He points out that this has helped to streamline physician outreach, referral development, and marketing intelligence. This enables everyone speak the same language, which translates into better ROI for the organization.

Krystal Guerra, Marketing Director at Marketware, says Geisinger’s experience really speaks to how technology can help hospitals manage their processes even more effectively.

“The key with leveraging technology is finding not just a tool, but rather a solution designed to work the way the end customer really works,” Guerra says, pointing to Geisinger as an example. “Marketware is unique because it was created and tailored with the healthcare audience in mind,” she adds, so it takes into account some of the details and challenges that Geisinger faces on a daily basis.

Can This Model Work in Other Settings?

Geisinger’s experience with physician liaisons and marketing providers can certainly be a good model to use in other settings. Although their largely rural setting and different hospital images and goals may be unique to its situation, there are some broader lessons learned that can translate to many other health care organizations.

For instance, Duffy says a key takeaway from Geisinger’s efforts is that it’s more important than ever to get things right on the very first try. “Therefore, you need to look at your strategy like a business model and determine what is driving it,” he says. If volume growth is your ultimate goal, you’ll want to create a map of how to get there from where you currently are.

Duffy also recommends sitting down with the chief medical officer and chief operations officer, reviewing your existing data with them, and identifying areas for improvement. By getting their buy-in early on, you can develop an integrated process. “We used our service line marketing staff, our strategy and business development, and our clinical operations to say, ‘Here is our thought process. Everyone will have a piece of this, but we [corporate communication] will be the quarterbacks,’” he says.

By being in charge of the process—and also gaining by increasing respect from the C-Suite with repeated successes—Duffy points out that when you work closely with your physicians toward a common goal, the results can be a big win for all of the parties involved.

Lisa D. Ellis is Editor of Strategic Health Care Marketing.