"Speed dating" growing as patients, doctors look to strike a match

What started as a small experiment at a Texas hospital is becoming an increasingly popular way to help physicians build their practices.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Oct. 11, 2010

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Lynnette Guirao, MD, was new to Cypress Internal Medicine in Greer, S.C., and looking to build her practice. The internist spoke on medical topics at public events. The practice advertised her arrival in newspapers. Patients trickled in.

Then she participated in a marketing event that is becoming increasingly popular nationwide: physician-patient speed dating. Most events feature five or six physicians and a few dozen prospective patients moving from table to table every five minutes in response to the motion of a wand, the sound of a bell or another signal. The events are a starting point for a physician-patient relationship.

The format was the brainchild of Mandy Forbus, a senior marketing specialist at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford, who launched "Doc Shop" in September 2009. She said many institutions decided to try it after a story in American Medical News (link) was picked up by other media outlets. "I got a lot of calls. It was great to be able to share what we have done here," she said.

Dr. Guirao participated in Greenville (S.C.) Hospital System University Medical Center's "Finding Dr. Right" program. She took a seat at a table, and potential patients sat across from her. What were her hours? How long would it take to get an appointment? Did she have experience treating their medical conditions? She gave them her phone number before a bell rang, and as the patient moved on to another doctor, a new potential patient sat down.

"I didn't think it was going to be so successful, but this was a very effective and creative way to let the community know that I'm here and that I'm taking new patients," Dr. Guirao said.

The event has its roots in speed dating for those looking for love, although the concept has been used for people seeking to network professionally and small-businesses owners who want to discuss loans with several bankers.

"An idea worth trying"

The exact number of institutions across the country holding these events as part of their marketing programs is unknown, though observers say dozens are trying or considering them. Forbus' hospital has expanded its events, which are held in two 30-minute sessions during a single lunch hour. They started with obstetrician-gynecologists and now include pediatricians and other primary care specialists.

Hallmark Health System in the Boston area held a "Match.doc" session Oct. 5 with family physicians and internists. The aim was to attract young professionals.

"We thought this was an entrepreneurial idea worth trying," said Rick Pozniak, Hallmark's system director of marketing and communications. "A lot of young professionals do not have a primary care physician. This is an opportunity to reach out to them in an informal yet fun way."

Other institutions have incorporated these events into larger ones. Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, Iowa, held a "Meet the Doctor" session on Sept. 18 in conjunction with an annual expo to link expectant parents with pediatricians and family physicians.

"We had one set of parents expecting twins," said Traci McBee, Mercy's spokeswoman. "They wanted a physician who had experience caring for multiples. They made a connection with a pediatrician who was a mother of multiples herself. It was really great to see that happen."

Though some patients mistakenly brought their medical records and sought health advice at earlier events, better communication has ironed out any misconceptions.

"Some of them did spill their guts, but the way it was advertised made it pretty clear that this was just to meet and to see if we were a match. I don't think they were expecting feedback," Dr. Guirao said.

Targeted marketing approach

The idea, which usually links patients to primary care physicians, continues to grow, because in difficult economic times, hospitals are looking for inexpensive ways to increase volume with targeted approaches.

Public events, such as educational seminars, may pull in people, but many of the potential patients already could have primary care physicians. Traditional advertising is expensive, and it might not work, because the way people consume media is in such flux. The speed dating events usually are promoted on YouTube videos, Twitter updates and e-mail newsletters from hospitals.

"We're doing much less traditional advertising than we used to do," said Sally Foister, director of marketing at Greenville Hospital System University Medical Center. "We're just trying to be much more targeted in our strategies. If we run an ad in the paper, so many people see it who don't even care. And people don't choose their doctors from a billboard."

Physicians who are employed or otherwise affiliated with an institution usually are not paid for their time but say they quickly meet one or more new patients. Physicians also may identify which patients might not be a good fit and recommend them to a colleague.

Hospitals say patients usually like speed dating because they can meet several doctors in one place without making numerous appointments and getting charged a co-pay for each visit. The events can have a ripple effect because they attract media attention, which can raise the profile of hospitals and physicians. In addition, if patients like a particular physician, they may recommend him or her to friends and relatives.

"That's been a big bonus," Forbus said.

Those who run these events are working to quantify the impact on hospital volume, but physicians who have participated say they are satisfied with the results.

Dr. Guirao doesn't plan to participate in another speed dating event even though she enjoyed the first one on July 22. At "Finding Dr. Right," she met about 15 potential patients, and seven have made initial appointments. She believes she has enough patients for the moment.

"My practice is picking up, but I would probably do it again if I see the need," she said.

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