Connecting with Medical Tourism Prospects through Online Marketing

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We help a limited number of ambitious and extraordinary clients to grow and scale their unique game-changing medical, dental, rehabilitation and wellness businesses

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By Maria K Todd, MHA PhD
CEO & Founder,
The Mercury Healthcare International group of companies

I frequently receive calls and requests from a doctor, a dentist, a hospital or a health resort owner or manager interested in medical tourism. That’s usually the first email I get. It often says, verbatim, “Hi I’m interested in medical tourism. What can you tell me?” If you’ve sent me an email that says exactly that, know that you are not alone. I get them on average about 8-10 per week. After 35 years in the business, I’ve learned a lot. What can I tell them? Where do I start when an email reaches me that is so cryptic?

After a few years of getting these emails and thinking to myself “That’s nice. You are interested in medical tourism. What do I do with this information about you? How would you like me to help you?” I started out by asking just that: “How would you like me to help you?” Raise your hand if you got one of those emails back from me.

I had an epiphany about those email exchanges. The epiphany goes back to the story of the guy who walks in the hardware store and tells the clerk, “I’m interested in drills.” Just like the email that says to me “I’m interested in medical tourism.”

No they aren’t. The hardware store shopper is interested in cutting into something to make a hole. The hole will solve the need they have to pass something through it, put something in it, or cross a barrier of some sort. But when I get the Sunday newspaper with the roto inserts for the week, the advertisement doesn’t promote a special offer on holes… it presents a special offer on drills. Likewise, the doctor, dentist, hospital executive or health resort owner is really saying “I would like to use medical tourism as a means to grow my international patient referrals and see more patients from outside my immediate local market base.” Right?

Knowing where to begin

As an internationally-recognized educator and advocate for my health and wellness tourism professional clients. I am most accustomed to people asking me a direct question, in English.

Perhaps they’ve read my books on medical tourism business development or facilitation and they identified something they want to know more about. They’ve listened to me give a lecture or lead a workshop and they want to know a clear path, a specific action plan, or they want to apply what they’ve just learned immediately after they get my answer. They’ve visited our consultancy medical tourism website and learned that we offer marketing plans and strategic assistance and are executing on a call to action we have on landing page for a topic they are interested in. Perhaps telling me “I’m interested in medical tourism” is the only way that they know how to express what they want to know.

I now believe that when they reach out, and say “I’m interested in medical tourism, how can you help me?” that what they intend to communicate is, “I am interested in marketing to international patients so that ultimately, I can grow a medical tourism referral base of patients who will be so happy with my service that they will, in turn, sing my praises and refer others to me without spending a fortune and hundreds of hours on marketing and advertising. How can you help me to do that?”

That’s where the challenge for me begins: I must learn about them. So I invite them to call me to tell me more about themselves in a complimentary 15 minute call. My first question is generally “What’s your specialty?”

From a doctor or dentist, I usually get the highest level response, “I’m a doctor or a dentist”. The next level down is “I am an orthopedic surgeon.” That uses up about 2 of their 15 minutes. They cannot even describe what they do!

Medical, dental, wellness and rehabilitation providers have been welcoming patients with passports and the means to pay for the services they need and want for centuries.

Connecting with them is no easy task because you must first understand why they look to medical tourism as a solution for a problem or concern they have in the first place.

  • Some come just for the services they need and have no interest in spending time in leisure activities at their selected destinations
  • Some come for the leisure activities and add a little medical, dental or wellness activity to their agenda
  • Some come because the services they desire are not available within their home community due to legal restrictions, provider scarcity, or subject to long delays
  • Some come because they want privacy and anonymity
  • Some seek a level of impeccable service that is only available at their chosen destination
  • Some seek to consult with and obtain the opinion from a renowned celebrity specialist that is only available at one particular destination
  • Some desire to participate in a clinical research trial that is available at one specific destination and is not available through remote monitoring and telehealth
  • Some select a destination and providers from a short list of approved practitioners and health facilities that their employer or labor union has agreed to impanel and pay for services for
  • covered conditions in accordance with its managed care benefits program, and lastly
  • Some come because the cost of services they seek is more affordable at a location other than where they normally reside or travel for work.

For referral agencies, suppliers, investors, and governments interested in entering the exciting realm of health and wellness tourism, the first rule above all others is to KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER. Each brings to health and wellness tourism their treatment and travel objectives, expectations, a budget allowance, lifestyle preferences, suspicions and concerns, a desire to trust.

As I listen to them, what’s going through my mind is how I can help them, but I don’t know enough about them and what they do. I mean, yes, I know about orthopedics. For a time, I was an orthopedic surgical nurse. In order to anticipate passing the right instrument at the right time, or reaching in with a hemostat to clamp a little “gusher”, I had to know the surgeries – step by step from skin incision to the last closing suture and wound dressing and casting. But there are 206 bones in the body. Then there are ligaments and muscles. Each of these has the potential to have a problem that requires repair from time to time.

There are hundreds of procedures in orthopedics and nuances to each one by each surgeon. So I ask, “In orthopedics, what procedure(s) do you do best?” The clock is ticking. They have 10 minutes of the original 15 left. I want to help, but I don’t work for free. It is going to take more than the remaining 10 minutes if I cannot get the basics from this caller – and it gets worse. Now comes another generality: “I do orthopedic surgery. I do every kind of orthopedic procedure.” Hmm, I think to myself: another polymath who wants to convince people to travel across the world for him to solve their problem and then refer others. I’m going to need a rongeur to get to the information I need.

In business, there’s an old saying – but I don’t see many doctors or dentists, or hospital executives or health resort owners who were ever taught this saying in their training: There are riches in niches.

When I ask them who they believe their most promising target market is, many tend to respond with “everyone”.

The translation is no one.

In their zeal to acquire as many patients as possible, many surgeons, dentists, hospitals, clinic and health resort owners try to serve the widest market possible. This is a huge mistake. By narrowing down their target market, many medical tourism business owners fear that they will be missing out on potential customers. Their reasoning is that if they go for the widest market possible, then they have a better chance of acquiring more customers. There’s a high likelihood that the reason they describe what they do in the most general terms is that they believe their target market is “the universe of all orthopedic problems.” This is a typical marketing newbie mistake. If doesn’t matter where they are: Nigeria, Nicaragua, or North Carolina.

What they want is for me to tell them — in the remaining 9 minutes of their complimentary initial discussion — the specific path to advertise to the universe of patients on planet Earth who have an orthopedic problem and get them to choose them to fix their orthopedic problem — because that’s what they sell: orthopedic surgery.

Then they get frustrated because I can’t deliver on that expectation. Nor did I promise to do so on my website, in my book, in my workshop, or my article. Not without further workup.

Determining a target market and identifying where it is and how to connect with it – especially in medical tourism – is far more complicated than taking a net to the park and deciding to catch butterflies. But even with butterflies, if you see 100 pretty butterflies scattered across the sky, you have to choose one you want to catch. Otherwise, you are simply swinging the net in the sky while running around the park. If the vision of someone doing that seems comical in your mind’s eye, that’s what we see in our medical tourism consulting practice all the time. The difference is that are wearing lab coats or hotel or hospital manager sports jackets.

To identify a medical tourism patient target market, requires first that the seller know what their product is.

Yes, you do orthopedic surgery. Got it.

“S” is for specific

Now narrow it down. Neck and back? Wrists? Shoulders? Knees, Ankles, Hips, Elbows? What sub-specialty within orthopedics? Now narrow that down.

“P” is for Problems

What procedures do you do best in that sub-domain? What specific problems do you alleviate?

“A” is for Attainable

What problems have you addressed really well? Who can attest to this? Where are their testimonials? Where on Earth did these patients come from?

If everyone you have treated in the past is local and you have no notoriety or reputation outside your local community, you’ll need to develop a professional brand first. A professional brand, developed and communicated properly will amplify your professional reputation, your past accomplishments, and communicate the possible results you may offer to people with specific orthopedic problems, and explaining how they will benefit from the procedures in which you specialize using your specific techniques.

“N” is for Number

Is there enough of an addressable market to warrant entering medical tourism with your narrow specialty? Here is where I differ in my methods from marketing generalists that advertise that they do medical tourism marketing: I use epidemiological data in my strategic approach – because I know how – and because it makes sense (to me) to do so. By using epidemiological data in addition to general orthopedic market size data like so many medical tourism marketing sellers, I can help my clients focus on ideas that have real potential and eliminate bad bets and wasted effort and financial resources. The SPAN method I use helps me focus on a smaller subset of prospects that are your target audience, and where your most valuable target population will be receptive to your brand message, reputation, and problem solving ability.

You can chase butterflies. But you probably want to catch them rather than chase them. Right?

You don’t need all people on Earth with orthopedic problems to be aware of you and to want to learn more about you. You need a narrow percentage of people on Earth in a place where it is convenient for you to reach out to them, and in turn, for them to take note of you and your offer, and to decide that they can afford to travel to you without a lot of travel itinerary complexity or complicated advance planning.

I use the epidemiological data on top of the general market sizing data to refine the demographics for a medical tourism marketing strategy. Instead of going wide and chasing all the butterflies in the park, I pick the one type of butterfly that I want to catch over all others. To do this, I must first learn about those butterflies. This takes more than a 15 minute courtesy call to learn about your business. Do they like a particular kind of nectar from a particular plant? Is that plant flowering now? If so, in what part of the park are they blooming? Once this is known, we head to the region of the park where those butterflies are in the greatest concentration. Without knowing the minimum information about your business and your offer and your brand and its current situation, I cannot begin to suggest a specific approach, strategy or execution to catch a butterfly; only to chase butterflies by recommending a park where many butterflies happen to fly.

Lots of medical tourism marketing consultants do that. Why? Because you have to spend a lot of money with them to get results.

They tell you to rent a stand at a conference. They get money for that. Are there butterflies there? Are they the right kind of butterflies there? The kind you want to catch? If not, what’s the point? I don’t begrudge conference organizers and stand rental companies. They have a right to do business and a purpose. They sell opportunities. That’s great! But are they the right opportunities that will help you capture the butterflies you want to catch? If not, is it really an opportunity – for you?

They convince you that you will be able to network with other people in the industry. Will this help you to catch butterflies? Those are your competitors! How will that produce your desired results? Well, I guess it could help you learn where the butterflies might be – or where they aren’t. If that’s of value — go for it!

They tell you that there will be experts making presentations. In a 20 minute panel presentation on how to catch butterflies? If you couldn’t get to an action plan in my complimentary 15 minute call where you had my undivided, specific attention, what do you realistically expect to learn in 20 minutes in a generalized panel presentation? So if you spend $4000 to fly to an event, book a hotel, pay the admission and take time away from seeing patients, will your efforts result in the capture of the specific type of international butterfly species with an addressable problem you can solve and produce results? I doubt it! But you see, I don’t fault these conference organizers or begrudge them. They need speakers who will pay their own way to advertise from the podium for 20 minute pitch presentations and speak for free. They pay me to conduct longer sessions and pre- and post conference workshops where I can provide value to their event attendees. If I cannot produce value for their event attendees, there’s no real reason to hire me. They can get more podium pitchers for free. That increases their head count which in turn gets them greater discounts and advantages with the conference venue without paying for them. Again – not the result or value that benefits you. Still, there may be some value you might gain by going. You must first determine what it is you want to achieve. Most of my clients want to achieve revenue and global renown. If the presentations don’t produce that, why go?

These marketers and media buyers also tell you to advertise to the Earth. As much as you can afford to spend each month. Are there butterflies on Earth? Of course there are! Advertising to the Earth costs lots of money!

Advertisers and media buyers make a commission (about 15%) on every advertising placement they arrange. So by telling you to advertise to the Earth instead of pointing you to a specific bush in a specific park where the specific butterfly is known to be concentrated, they convince you that you will “reach” many prospects if you buy a lot of advertising. If that’s their deliverable, they’ve earned their fee.

But “reach” is not the metric you want as your key performance indicator. Yes, it is true – that is a metric… one of many that is used to sell more advertising and that most new marketers believe will achieve results. And sometimes it does produce results… results for the butterfly chaser; not the butterfly catcher. There’s a big difference. One spends money running around a park with a net. The other one has possession of the butterfly it targeted. Which one grows your medical tourism business and reputation and generates revenue? Chasing or catching?

The deliverable you want for what you pay them is not leading you to where butterflies might be located on earth. The deliverable is butterflies in your net. The more butterflies you capture, the better your results will be.

If you contract with a consultant for the wrong deliverable you still have to pay – even though the results you were seeking didn’t materialize. That’s on you! The consultant sold what they sell: reach. It is an honest metric – it just isn’t the exact result you want. Buy the drill that drills the hole that specifically fills the need you have to successfully meet your objective, not just any old drill and drill bit.

A great medical tourism orthopedic or other specialty or hospital or health resort brand is not concerned about getting awareness from every possible person willing to buy a medical tourism service. A great medical tourism brand prefers to educate and inform people located in places on Earth with whom they want to attract as patients.

With this approach you won’t need to compete on price. If price is why a prospective patient chooses you, it is also why they will choose someone who offers them a better price. Target those prospective patients who are looking for the specific solution or medical tourism experience you offer. Create messages they understand and believe. When that happens, they will fly willingly into your butterfly net and convince their friends and relatives and colleagues to join them there if those they can influence need the benefit of what you can provide.

About the Author

Dr. Maria Todd is a leading international authority in medical tourism marketing strategy and tactics. For more than 35 years, she has been educating and advocating for the success of her clients as they launch and grow their medical tourism businesses.  She does this through private coaching and consulting engagements, authoring numerous commercially published books on the business of medical tourism, and sharing articles and insights as a leading authority on the business of medical tourism. She generously underwrites open access to the Center for Health Tourism Strategy without cost or obligation as a free educational resource for the benefit of the medical tourism industry.

Bring your toughest marketing and business growth challenges to her. Learn more about what she does here on our website and begin the conversation with a complimentary 15-minute chat by phone or by Skype. If you are ready to begin working with a consultant, use that courtesy appointment to explain your situation and your goals and objectives to her. From there, she’ll tell you if she can help you and what you should do next to turn your dreams for your business into reality.

Request An Appointment To Chat With Me Today (800.727.4160)

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